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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Both Prop A advocates Save Austin Now and opponents political action committee Equity PAC raised over $1 million in funding between Sept. 24 and Oct. 23 ahead of Austin's Nov. 2 election, but their efforts haven't yet been reflected in the polls.
Prop A is the most contentious ballot item this election, if passed the measure would require a minimum police staffing of just over two officers per 1,000 residents. Also on the ballot is a parkland-focused Prop B; and eight state constitutional amendments. Despite constant coverage by city and community leaders and near record-breaking funds from both sides of the Prop A debacle, under 7% of voters have gone to the polls with less than a week left of early voting.
Save Austin Now, a self-proclaimed bipartisan group that saw its first major victory when it passed an ordinance to reinstate the homeless camping ban in May, raised $1,013,896.86 in the one-month period, bringing their grand total to around $1.7 million according to Jack Craver's Austin Politics Newsletter. It's the second time the political action committee has raised over $1 million—SAN nearly broke the record for money raised in a city election after racking up $1.9 million for the camping ban in May.
According to SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County GOP, most funding came from private businesses and influential community members, including:
- Private equity investor Philip Canfield, who gave two donations totaling $125,000
- The cryptically-named America 2076— $100,000
- Venture capitalist firm Gigafund's managing directors Luke Nosek and Stephen Oskoui contributed $50,000 apiece
- Venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, real estate developer Dick Anderson and car dealer Roger Beasley—$50,000 each
- Buc-ee's owner Donald Wasek, mystery donor "L., D.K", and Julia Wilkinson of charitable group Still Water Foundation each gave $25,000
- George Soros group Open Society Policy Center—$500,000
- Washington, D.C.-based liberal social justice charity Fairness Project—$200,000
- Left-wing "dark money" fund Sixteen Thirty—$100,000
- Oklahoma oil mogul Charles Schusterman's Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies—$100,000
- Several unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Texas Federation of Teachers, Southwest Laborer's District Council, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, ACLU of Texas and Austin labor union branch Austin AFL-CIO also contributed to the group.
Those big bucks have been put to use, with both groups pumping out commercials, billboards, ads and social media efforts to sway voters to either side. According to Craver, SAN has spent all but $2,777 as of Oct. 23, gaining the backing of Austin City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and former Austin mayors Lee Leffingwell, Lee Cooke and Ron Mullen in the process. Those who endorse the campaign cite a need for better policing amid a nationwide uptick in violence, especially as Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon announced that APD would no longer respond to "non-emergency" calls due to an understaffed force.
Some of their advertising has been called out as misleading, including misleading tweets about the possible support of Austinite Matthew McConaughey and insinuating that Austin Democrats are voting for the bill in text ads.
— Save Austin Now | Prop A For A Safe Austin (@SaveAustinNow) October 21, 2021
The Equity PAC still had $455,000 remaining as of Oct. 23 as they relied more on supporters Mayor Steve Adler, Council member Greg Casar, 80 community organizations and even some comments from Chacon, who says the measure is "based on older methodologies," to get the word out.
Most who oppose the bill say that Prop A, which could cost between $271.5 and nearly $600 million over five years according to estimates reported by city staff, would take away funds from other essential city departments. But they're still doing plenty of advertising outreach themselves—and Prop A supporters dispute that multi-million dollar price tag and say city council members are ignoring the increase in crime after cutting police funds last year amid Black Lives Matter protests.
Despite the hot topic, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told CBS Austin the city may fall behind their already-low goal of 18%-19% of eligible voters reaching the polls.
"It's a slow, low turnout. We're not seeing very good numbers at all," DeBeauvoir said.
Early voting ends Friday, while Election Day comes Tuesday, Nov. 2. For a guide to voting on the election, click here.
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As Halloween makes us second guess if that cold spot was a ghost or simply the cool front, keep your guard up because there are supposed haunted grounds in the city.
Austin is largely free of widespread hauntings but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its fair share of phantoms if you know where to look. Here are some of Austin's most haunted burial grounds.
Originally called the city cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery is Austin's oldest burial ground and has been standing since the 1850s. Though record-keeping isn't as robust from its early days, with over 40 acres of land and more than 25,000 people buried, Oakwood Cemetery is said to be the permanent home to some well-known Texans: U.S. Marshall and Texas Ranger John Barclay Armstrong who passed in 1913, Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson who passed on in 1883, radio personality John Henry Faulk who was buried in 1990.
Oakwood Cemetery is also known for its fair share of hauntings—note that not all who lie there are resting in marked graves and some of the early marked graves, like 1897's "Little Brother" gravestone, are haunting in and of themselves.
So, why should you stay away from Oakwood Cemetery at night? You might run into the ghost of the first of the Servant Girl Annihilator's victims, 17-year-old Eula Phillips, who was murdered by her then-husband with an axe. Philips is said to wander the grounds lamenting her violent death with tears. Dickinson, who died at the age of 68, may also appear to you and is said to be the most visual of specters that roam the grounds.
Oakwood Cemetery is known for graverobbing—rumor has it that university professors used to steal bodies from unmarked graves to use as cadavers for their students—so you might encounter the souls who are still roaming the cemetery, looking for their bodies.
Shoal Creek Indian Massacre Site
The historical marker is located at 24th Street at Shoal Creek. (austinghosts.com)
Shoal Creek, like nearly all of the United States, can be traced back thousands of years to 9,000 B.C. with Native American arrowheads. Settlers would camp along the mouth of the creek, including famous residents like the second president of the Republic of Texas Mirabeau Lamar, where it is said they engaged in a turf war with the Native Americans who resided right nearby. Those who weren't killed by Comanche warriors were killed by cholera and were buried along the creek. It is said that a mass grave, filled with victims of yellow fever, cholera and unexplained violence, lies beneath the creek.
Of the hauntings most commonly seen at Shoal Creek, watch out for cold spots in the middle of summer, vanishing orbs of light called "Marfa Lights," vanishing apparitions, unexplainable noises at night, sudden sickness and nightmares after visiting.
The Austin State Hospital
The Austin State Hospital is still operating. (Texas Historical Commission National Register Collection and the Portal to Texas History)
When the Austin State Hospital took in its first patients in 1861, it was meant to be a beacon of hope for the mentally ill to recover from the stressors of everyday life. On any given day, the hospital would treat and allegedly sometimes experiment on anywhere from 200-4,000 patients and after an unfortunate death, bodies that were not claimed were buried in the cemetery out back behind the hospital. When the cemetery inevitably filled up, bodies were exhumed and transferred to a burial ground just over two miles away. Though they say all the bodies were transferred, legend tells that some have been left on the still-operating hospital's grounds just six feet below.
The Austin State School and State School Farm Colony
The Austin State School is now closed, many of its 68 buildings abandoned. (Andreanna Moya Photography/CC)
These two gender-segregated facilities were originally intended for mentally-troubled juvenile offenders, many of whom never left the grounds. On the school's 436 acres, 1,800 students were housed across 68 buildings and the campus also held farmland, a swimming pool and a cemetery. Children who were not claimed were buried on-site, where about 3,000 students are buried. The school was sued in the 1960s after changing its name to the Travis State School for inadequate living conditions and closed in the late 90s. Many buildings have been taken over by charter schools but some remain empty to this day.
Tucker Cemetery's unique sight is its dozens of hand-written tombstones. (kissingtoast/CC)
Just outside the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Tucker Cemetery doesn't have many stories of haunts to its name other than anecdotes of car locks popping open on their own. However, what makes this cemetery freaky is its collection of tiny, hand-scrawled tombstones.
Keep Austin spoOoOoOoky!
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Coming off of the heels of the biggest Formula 1 race to date, Circuit of the Americas now has plans to create luxury "car condos" for racecar enthusiasts right by the track.
Located on the racetrack's storied "Turn 11," COTA will create around 178 car condos on a 22-acre plot in a partnership with real estate firm Lincoln Property Company. Presale reservations for the units began Wednesday, and the project hopes to break ground by late spring of 2022.
The 340,000 square foot space will include a 7,000-square foot amenity center with a pool, a clubhouse, a conference center, outdoor barbecue grills and more.
The luxurious car condos will be located alongside COTA's famed Turn 11. (Lincoln Property Company)
Customers can trick out their space, which can range from 1,300 square feet to 6,000+, however they'd like. In other projects, Lincoln Property's JR Gideon has seen car condo owners add in mechanic shops, basketball hoops, bars, music studios and more.
"They're really for storing luxury cars just as much as hosting," Gideon said. "You can do pretty much anything in there besides live."
Think of the ultimate man cave, though that word's not quite appropriate—according to Gideon, some female clients have also booked reservations for the project.
"I think predominately, our demographic is going to be men, yes, but we've already had a few ladies reserve units, which is awesome," Gideon said.
Along with having a trackside space, Gideon said that owning a condo has other perks, including 20% off COTA events. Most importantly, however, these car enthusiasts want to see their cars on the track, something the team is already planning for.
"If you're going to have your nice cars at the track, you want to know if you're going to be able to get them on there," Gideon said. "Right now I'm planning for two full track weekends for owners to be able to get their cars out on the track."
Marketing for the project has just begun, and almost every client so far has been from Texas and/or the Austin area. But Gideon and team expect plenty of interest from national customers as well as some international buyers as the only F1 racetrack in the States with trackside car condos.
There could be a hitch in the plan, however. COTA's 10-year contract for F1 expired last weekend, and no new deal has been finalized yet. But COTA chair Bobby Epstein feels confident in renewing a contract, especially after the sports' biggest weekend to date. Gideon and Lincoln's Seth Johnston aren't involved in contract talks but say that plenty of attractions exist at COTA outside of the U.S. Grand Prix.
And with newfound American interest in F1—Gideon, like many others, partially credits Netflix's "Drive To Survive" series—the crew is confident that there will be more projects like this to come in the future.
"With (Drive To Survive) coming out in the last couple of years and so many people watching the past race, I think there's certainly a lot of momentum around Circuit of the Americas and this project as well as other future developments at COTA," Gideon said.
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