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Working at the polls for the primary runoff and special election in downtown Austin could have been smoother.
I served as an alternate judge on Tuesday, helping the election judge with any issues at the site, as well walking voters through the process. The Travis County elections team employed a positive scrappy attitude in trying to help us navigate the myriad issues that we encountered while setting up, but it was still a challenging day.
As someone who was new to poll working, I figured I might be scheduled alongside a veteran of the process. Instead, my location had four workers, three with no prior experience and one with a week's worth of early voting expertise. We were supposed to be a team of seven, but the three dropped out for reasons that were not disclosed—they may or may not be among the 15 that quit due to COVID.
The poll at the William B. Travis building was difficult to find, and we received little instruction on how to get there or where to park. In fact, the location seemed to be so obscure that only one candidate, Margaret Chen Kercher, had put up signage.
By about 2 p.m. we got additional "Vote Here" signs, but the complaints about being hard to find persisted throughout the day.
Our team could relate, as none of us could immediately find the room we were supposed to be in when we arrived, and we were late in getting the various voting machines set up. We managed to open our poll location in time for our first voter at 8:15 a.m. (but we were supposed to be open at 7 a.m.).
However, that voter might not have actually been our first, as the outside doors were locked and there didn't seem to be anyone onsite to resolve the issue. As it was a government building, it required badge access 24 hours, 7 days a week.
We used a garbage can to prop open the door, but the wind repeatedly knocked it over, closing and locking the door. Then we wedged a tape roll, which seemed to work slightly better.
After that, we had to get our poll site's cell phone working, and that had its own set of issues.
Needless to say, we could have used more help.
But the good thing about our shrunken team was that we all had access to personal protective equipment, like face shields. This was not guaranteed during training, as we were told, "PPE items and quantity might differ from what is shown in this video due to availability."
Another plus of the location was the massive room size, which allowed us to space registration desks, ballot marking devices (where you make voting selections), and the ballot box far apart.
After the chaotic opening, we only saw a trickle of voters. This could have been a result of the inaccessibility of the site or maybe that it catered to people who usually work downtown—and a lot of people are not going to the office.
Our small pool of voters seemed largely unfazed by the pandemic. Everyone that came through wore a mask of some sort. However, I only heard the occasional passing comment about voting in the middle of a spike in COVID-19 cases. The majority of voters already had started working from their offices downtown, so they were potentially acclimated to the risks of being inside with other people.
On the note of PPE, the "finger condoms" (officially finger cots) along with the always loved "I Voted" stickers were the stars of the day. Voters seemed to get a kick out of slipping on the finger cots to sign and vote. Some even asked if they could grab a few extra.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.