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With concerts and festivals suddenly shuttered last spring amid escalating COVID-19 cases, two local companies that provided medical and security for those large-scale events were forced to pivot to other roles to stay afloat.
And their efforts have paid off, sustaining employees and helping Austin-area communities stay healthy.
We Are Code 4 Emergency Services, founded in 2015, shifted its pre-pandemic focus from coordinating security at venues such as Euphoria and Houston's Astroworld Festival, to offering COVID-19 safety consultations, testing and vaccinations, including last week's COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Austin ISD's Performing Arts Center.
Healthcare workers receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination drive administered by Code 4 Emergency Services at the AISD Performing Arts Center in Mueller on Jan. 14. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
The effort was a joint project between Code 4 and the Travis County Medical Society, with the latter looking for a vaccine source to immunize outpatient medical offices that aren't affiliated with a hospital and, therefore, didn't get the serum first, said Leanne Dupay, TCMS director of marketing and communications.
Code 4 "turned out to be the perfect solution" for Dupay's group, handling the vaccine side of the program while TCMS put the word out to its members that the inoculations would be available.
When the pandemic took hold around the country this spring, company President Scott Davidson and his staff brainstormed as to how to keep the business alive with concerts, sports and conferences suddenly halted.
Scott Davidson, president and owner of Code 4 Emergency services, during an interview with Austonia at a Vaccination Event at the AISD Performing Arts center on Jan. 14. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
"We knew that the event and entertainment industry would be the first affected and probably the last to come back online," said Davidson. "It went from what was going to be an incredible year to virtually nothing in the books in terms of what we were accustomed to doing."
With medical resources already in place, Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Alba said the company first created a biohazard division that enabled existing and new government clients, such as the city of Austin and Travis County, to try to curtail the spread of the virus.
"Our pivot was switching the risk that we were mitigating," Davidson said. "We went from car bombs, active shooters (and) severe weather to mitigating the virus."
A worker from Code 4 Emergency Services sprays an electrostatic decontaminate on exercise equipment at a YMCA in Oak Hill. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
The organization established a training program referencing new pandemic protocols.
"Most of us, prior to the pandemic, thought we knew how to clean and how to disinfect something," Alba said. "We definitely learned a lot ourselves. As we are doing this work, we're also training every facility we come into on what to do and what not to do."
Headquartered at Austin Studios, Code 4 attracted the business of local film and media companies seeking to address the industry's unique risks on and off production sets.
Three workers from Code 4 Emergency Services decontaminate a film set in Bastrop, TX to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
"We got wind, early on, that the film industry was trying to come back," Davidson said, adding the industry has very strong COVID-19 safety guidelines. The partnership "was a natural fit" and Code 4 has consulted on more than 70 productions since March, including Rooster Teeth studio series and advertising shoots for Samsung Group and Jeep automobile maker, he said.
"On these sets, these people are accustomed to working a certain way and, frankly, we have to challenge their tradition constantly—just the way that you would hold a camera and work as a team to capture a shot," Alba said. "We have to tell them, 'you don't work that way anymore.'"
Industry changes ran the gamut from altering craft services to transportation, post-production and voice overs.
"It's really looking at everything they do and basically rearranging it to be done in a way that honors public health and keeps everyone safe, while not shutting down the production," Alba said.
Carlos Cardec, one of the founders of First Medical Response walks around the company trailer on Jan. 15. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
As with Code 4, First Medical Response of Texas focused on medical care for private and public events pre-pandemic, including San Antonio's Fiesta Oyster Bake, Stock Show & Rodeo and Spurs games, company founder Edwin Reyes said. The quarter-century business is based in Dripping Springs but has a San Antonio office as well.
The curtailment of these events at the start of the pandemic forced Reyes to realign his roster of 120 part-time staffers who serve as medical personnel and first responders in their primary jobs. He's been an Austin Emergency Medical Services paramedic for more than 20 years.
Reyes said the change took him and business partner Carlos Cardec by surprise, and the company's event calendar "was gone with the blink of an eye."
"We had some big decisions to make," he said. "Is it time to say 'goodbye' to our hard-earned work of the past 25 years or do we try to figure out other options?"
Eventually, the business partners dove into coronavirus testing and screening by embarking on a new division, one that's been profitable due to the sheer volume of procedures undertaken, Reyes said. By employing a mobile trailer to test employees onsite, he said the practice makes it easier for staffers to receive the test at their place of employment, rather than travel to a testing clinic.
Edwin Reyes in the First Medical Response trailer on Jan. 15. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
The team also began consulting—sharing information with clients on procedures that would mitigate potential hazards, keep their staff safe, and allow their businesses to open back up, Cardec said.
Then came vaccinations. The company became licensed to give the vaccines and, with 1,000 Moderna doses, its staff held its first vaccine clinic on Dec. 30, Reyes said.
First Medical Response gave higher risk staff at Lake Travis ISD their initial round of vaccines, bringing the trailer to Lake Travis High School on Jan. 19. One of those lucky recipients was Kara King, a middle school science teacher and the mayor of Bee Cave, who has suffered from bilateral pulmonary embolisms, or blood clots in both lungs.
"I've always been nervous being around all of the kids every day and having diminished lung capacity," King said. "To get that vaccine yesterday, I feel so much peace now and relief that it's really going to be okay. It really is."
Reyes said the company's mobile clinic could be used to help people who need the vaccine but aren't within striking distance of a hub.
"We want to help out as much as we can but we are limited and controlled by how fast we get the vaccinations and how the state decides to push forward with the program," he said.
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Everyone wants to be in Austin—tech, celebs and now sports. At least that's what it looks like.
In the midst of a first season for Austin FC, the city's first major league professional sports team, the Buffalo Bills are reportedly looking at a possible move to Austin.
The news comes from ESPN's Seth Wickersham, who reports the NFL team is saying it is considering a move from New York to Austin, possibly to push public funding of its new $1.5 million stadium.
An ownership source tells me that Austin is a possible destination—or threat—as one of the “other cities elsewhere that desire an NFL franchise and would pay handsomely for it." https://t.co/zMf1oChO8K
— Seth Wickersham (@SethWickersham) August 1, 2021
Austin was without a major pro team until Austin FC came to town. While all eyes have been on Austin's "boomtown" status, the city isn't exactly expected to get an NFL team with two other major teams in the state—the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans.
Nevertheless, the governor and mayor responded to the rumor.
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Editor's note: Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self healing and creativity. Check it out here.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.