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Looking for love has always come with obstacles, and they've only been magnified by COVID-19. Nevertheless, many Austinites continue to navigate these uncharted waters. We'll be sharing their stories every week right here.
"There weren't many things to distract us"
When Mariana Gonzalez got out of a relationship at the beginning of April, she thought to herself, "I'm probably not going to meet anybody all pandemic. Who knows how long it's gonna last?"
She was wrong.
Bored and mildly heartsick, Gonzalez got on Tinder a few weeks later. It didn't take long for her to hit it off with Bri Cheairs. After a successful, hours-long FaceTime date, they met in person on May 15, with the understanding that they were both looking to keep things casual and find somebody to spend time with during the pandemic.
"It was kind of weird because we kind of jumped into that part of a relationship—even though we weren't in a relationship—where you're just comfortable being around the house with each other, because it was really the only option," Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez and Cheairs kept seeing each other throughout the next month. They had an unintentional "first date" in mid-June when they walked to Planet K at 37th and Guadalupe, picked up a pizza from the neighboring Domino's and ate it at a desolate Central Park.
Despite their noblest intentions, they were both catching feelings for each other.
"I think obviously with the pandemic going on, there was less possibility for me to go on half-assed dates," Gonzalez says. "There weren't many things to distract us or pull us away from each other."
On July 11, Gonzalez and Cheairs made their relationship official. In reality, they just put a label to the activities they had already been enjoying together for nearly two months, like watching vintage horror movies at the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In Theatre and hiking isolated trails around Austin. (They attempted one ill-fated trip to a packed Barton Creek, which Gonzalez describes as a "lawless place.")
"It's been going great so far, and we both are kind of still navigating this world and this landscape," says Gonzalez, who credits the pandemic for accelerating her and Cheairs' emotional connection. "I don't know if I would have ended up in a relationship like this outside of what's going on in society."
They're both looking forward to visiting museums and aquariums when life returns to relative normalcy, and hopefully taking advantage of the flights Gonzalez booked to Cancún for early 2021. Gonzalez is also excited to introduce Cheairs to her friends, though the prospect of going out in a post-social distancing age raises one minor concern for both of them.
"When we first started dating, [Cheairs] said something like, 'How are you supposed to date somebody if you don't even know if they can dance yet?'" Gonzalez jokes. "We're gonna be like six months into this relationship, realizing the other person can't dance."
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Less than a week after a fatal mass shooting on Sixth Street and amid rising concerns about violent gun crime, state Republican leaders and gun lobbyists gathered for a celebratory press conference, where Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law seven bills expanding gun rights, including one allowing permitless carry.
"This is a prolific day for the Second Amendment in the state of Texas," House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said at Alamo Hall in San Antonio on Thursday.
The bills take effect Sept. 1 and include:
- Senate Bill 19: Prohibits state contracts with companies that plan to divest from firearm ammunition companies
- SB 20: Bars hotels from prohibiting guests from bringing guns into their rooms
- SB 550: Permits a person to carry a gun in any type of holster
- House Bill 957: Exempts suppressors made in Texas from federal regulations
- HB 1500: Designates firearms and ammunition sellers and manufacturers as essential businesses
- HB 1927: Allows residents 21 years of age and older to carry a handgun without a permit
- HB 2622: Designates Texas "Second Amendment Sanctuary State"
This expansion of gun rights comes as violent crime rates rise in major U.S. cities, including Austin, where murders were up 50% year-over-year in April.
This week, Austin police arrested two juveniles in connection with the mass shooting on Sixth Street early Saturday morning, left one dead and 14 others injured. Two months ago, a former Travis County sheriff's deputy shot and killed three people in North Austin, prompting an hours-long manhunt.
"We support the right of every law-abiding American to be able to have a weapon to defend themselves," Abbott said. "That is different from teenagers unlawfully getting access to guns to commit crime. Those are people who deserve to be behind bars for the rest of their lives."
Local public safety advocates have attributed this rise to police budget cuts, which Austin City Council enacted last August, but cities that increased their police spending are also seeing increases.
In light of rising violent crime rates, the Austin Police Department launched a gun crime prevention program in April. Although not all violent crime involves guns, gun violence is increasing and may involve stolen guns or illegally manufactured "ghost" guns. "I'm just very concerned about the number of illegally possessed firearms and how we can curb that," Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said during an April 15 press conference.
Rising violent crime rates continue to spur gun sales in the Austin area—and around the country. "In this increasingly dangerous world, people want to be able to protect themselves," embattled NRA President Wayne LaPierre said at the press conference Thursday. "Thank god Texas is leading the way in making that possible.
A long shot
Conservative activists have lobbied for permitless carry for years, without success. But state lawmakers reached a compromise last month after the Senate added a series of amendments to address concerns from law enforcement groups, which worried permitless carry would endanger officers and make it easier for criminals to access guns.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated the bill's passage, which he described as an expansion of Texans' freedoms. "The media needs to understand that you are so far out of touch with where Texans and Americans are on this issue," he said.
Nearly 60% of Texas voters opposed permitless carry, according to an April University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Melanie Greene, lead volunteer for the Moms Demand Action Austin group, recently told Austonia that state lawmakers are likely motivated to pursue such legislation because of a small, vocal minority of gun rights activists and the threat of drawing even more conservative opponents in primary elections.
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Austin's tech labor market, which was already tight heading into the pandemic, has grown even more so as California companies flock to the capital city. It's made for a situation where employers are listening more to worker demands to fill job openings.
For tech workers—like their counterparts in the restaurant, construction and myriad other industries facing labor shortages—that means setting their own terms, such as remote work options and higher wages.
"We are living in times when the employees are the king or the queen," said Angelos Angelou, founder and CEO of local consulting firm AngelouEconomics.
A talent center
Lured by the state's business-friendly climate and Austin's growing tech scene, California-based companies such as Tesla, Oracle and TikTok built factories, relocated headquarters and opened offices. Austin posted the highest tech migration rate of any city in the country between May 2020 and April 2021, according to a recent LinkedIn analysis.
With so many new resident businesses, job growth kept pace. The Austin metro ranked fourth nationally for tech job postings growth in March, according to Silicon Valley Bank's latest State of the Markets report.
Oracle relocated its headquarters to the Riverside location in Austin. (Shutterstock)
To fill these roles, local tech companies have to look beyond the city limits. Employers poach from their competitors, recruit recent graduates from area colleges and universities or look to the national labor market for talent, Angelou said.
Summer Salazar, director of employer engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, has seen a huge influx in tech sector job postings on the university's job board in recent months. "We feel that demand," she said.
An employee's market
Jaime Cabrera, 28, recently graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and is looking for a policy job at a social media company. He didn't go into his job search with plans to stay in Austin but has seen various intriguing openings, citing Bumble, Lyft and TikTok. "I didn't realize how many companies are here," he said.
The tech labor market also affects employees who are not looking for a new job but instead seeking better benefits or internal policy changes from their current employer.
Lawrence Humphrey, 27, lives in North Austin and works for IBM. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, he co-founded Tech Can Do Better, which advocates for a more equitable industry. Since then, there has been little quantitative progress in terms of more diverse hiring and other metrics. But there has been a qualitative shift. "Issues around racial equity are just far more of a priority from the perspective of the employees, so therefore it's far more of a priority for the employers," he said.
OG vs. newcomers
Although the pandemic has accelerated the growth of Austin's tech industry, the industry was already established. In the latter half of the 20th century, the city attracted big tech originators like IBM because of its enticingly low labor cost and spawned homegrown giants like Dell—trends that continue today.
The arrival of Silicon Valley tech transplants in other growing tech cities, such as Miami, has led to tension with the so-called old guard. In Austin, such competition has forced companies to compete for workers, leading to more mobility.
"When I was in the job market, my god if you changed jobs often—and often meant once every three years—you were considered a traitor," said Angelou, who headed the Austin Chamber's economic development department from 1984 through 1995, helping to recruit companies such as IBM, Apple and Samsung to town. "Now people change jobs every nine months, it appears, and that is considered a plus."
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Both suspects involved in the Saturday 6th Street mass shooting have been charged on implications of the killing of Douglas John Kantor, a 25-year-old tourist from New York, according to a Thursday report from the Austin Police Department.
The suspects, 17-year-old Jeremiah Roshawn Leland James Tabb and a 15-year-old juvenile who was previously reported to be 16, began shooting at each other over a middle school grudge near the 400 block of E. 6th Street at 1:25 a.m. on Saturday.
The 15-year-old arrested was booked into Gardner-Bettes Juvenile Detention Facility on Saturday for deadly conduct. On Monday, Tabb was taken into custody in the Killeen area for aggravated assault and serious bodily injury with a $500,000 bond.
Police clarified that there were a total of 15 victims of the shooting in the report—previously reported as 14. Of the victims, 13 are in stable condition and one is still in critical condition. Kantor died at a local hospital the next day.
The investigation is still ongoing, police say.