Louis, an Austin business owner and father, knows three couples right now who are getting divorced.
With his own 20-year marriage on the rocks, he would, in other times, be joining their ranks. But he's been furloughed and their kid is about to start college.
The idea of a second rent and more emotional wreckage sounds, to Louis, even less attractive than staying in a bad marriage for a few more months.
"There are a lot of people that are logistically married right now," Louis said, asking that his last name not be used to protect his family's privacy. "That's probably the camp I would put us in, depending on the day."
Stories of strained relationships abound during the pandemic, and the numbers of divorces being filed in Travis County, according to court records, have been increasing every month since April, the first full month of the shutdown and shelter-in-place rules.
But, due to a confluence of factors unique to these times, only half the number of local couples are filing for divorce now than they were at this time last year. Instead, they're choosing to ride out the storm together, for better or for worse. At least for now.
In Travis County, divorces from March through June dropped from 5,334 in 2019 to 2,802 for the same period this year.
In neighboring Williamson County, divorces are down from 2,022 to 1,322 for the same period.
Data on divorce filings provided by the head of court administration for Travis County.(Data courtesy of Kirker Davis)
Austin family attorney Holly Davis said calls to her firm about family problems exacerbated by the pandemic have been "off the charts," so much so that they had to hire extra attorneys.
But court delays, financial hardships and logistical problems mean fewer couples are heading into divorce court, she said.
Courts have been "very good" about responding to families in abusive situations, but non-emergency hearings like deciding who pays the bills are being delayed for weeks or months, she said.
Simple logistics also plays a role, she said. It's more difficult to move and find a place to live, stay with family members who may be compromised healthwise, and run a household alone.
Right now, for example, when most kids are being schooled at home, a second pair of hands can be a lifeline.
"It's Hunger Games out there for nannies right now," Davis said, "and our schools are saying they don't know when they're going to let our kids back in. So if you're trying to run logistics for your household and you're about to split up the house, you're losing half of your help."
Davis and Ashley both predict an increase in filings when times return to normal, and Louis will likely be among them.
The pandemic, he said, revealed long-time problems that he can't ignore by traveling for work all the time now that he's stuck at home on furlough.
"We're at an impasse," he said. "And I won't go back to the status quo."
Part of the phenomenon, Davis said, is that couples are being more thoughtful about the decision to divorce. It's a shift in perspective, in a culture that views divorce as a relatively quick solution to marital problems.
"When your personal health is at risk, and you've got social injustice and racism and protests," Davis said, "the fact that your husband leaves towels on the floor, and has never really loved you in the way that you want to be loved, gets put on the back burner."
And for those who started the pandemic in a healthy marriage, tensions can turn into relationship-builders, said Austin marriage and family therapist Leigh Ashley.
"This kind of thing can expose a weakness, but then those folks that have the skills and the outlook and the camaraderie built, this can just be one of those seasons that actually gives them new and deeper history together," Ashley said.
For Austin public-relations executive Jason Stanford, the pandemic gave them new communications skills and a fresh appreciation for their partnership—strengthening an already solid 10-year marriage.
"Having a person who has promised to look out for you through thick and thin comes in pretty damned handy in a pandemic, come to find out," he said.
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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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