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by Rich Oppel
Question No. 1 on the annual Zandan poll gets right to the heart of the issue.
Q: Thinking about Austin today, do you think things are headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track?
Wrong track: 47%
Right direction: 39%
Don't know: 14%
That's a radical change from 2017, when the numbers were flipped: Back then, only 35% of Austin-area respondents said Austin was on the wrong track. A majority, 52%, said Austin was on the right track. And 13% said they didn't know.
These numbers have got to give Mayor Steve Adler and members of the Austin City Council pause. And where do they come from?
Peter Zandan, global vice chairman of Hill + Knowlton Strategies, and a long-time Austin resident since 1977, conducted the poll. He has sponsored the survey, which he pays for personally, over the years. His last poll was in 2017.
The poll of 801 Austin-area residents was in the field between February 17 and March 5. The respondents were drawn from the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes surrounding counties.
That 12% increase in residents finding the city on the wrong track was striking to Zandan, who earned master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Texas-Austin.
"This has been a city of optimism and support, and the shift is palpable," he said in an interview. "This reflects a shift in the public and cultural Austin. On some level we thrive, but that success is not for everyone. And you can see the divide by age, length of residence and time here."
To see what Zandan is talking about, just take one response—Austin is on the "wrong track"--and see how that varies among respondents:
All respondents, 47%
Age 18-34, 28%
Age 35+, 55%
City of Austin resident, 43%
0-5 years in Austin, 35%
6-20 years in Austin, 42%
21+ years in Austin, 57%
Respondents are gloomy about Austin's future. Fully 50% said they thought that in five years living in Austin for most people will be worse. Here, younger people, city residents and newcomers to Austin were more optimistic about the future than older people and residents outside the city but in the MSA.
Is there any happy news in the data? Sure.
Q. Compared to other U.S. cities, do you think Austin is a better or worse place to raise a family? All counted, 42% said better. Across all categories, 39% to 51% agreed. The response was most favorable among new arrivals, with 51% of those here 0-5 years saying yes.
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.