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'It feels like I've had a two-and-a-half-month week': Austin’s social distancers can't help but let boundaries soften
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Austin marketing adviser and cyclist Kimberly Jarboe never leaves the house without a bottle of hand sanitizer clipped to her belt loop.
Still, weeks of sheltering in place have worn her down.
And so, like many others aching for some sliver of their pre-pandemic lives, Jarboe has found little ways to let the world back in—while still wearing a mask, sanitizing her hands, playing it safe.
"I do have a very close circle of friends that I've been spending time with and acting fairly normal around," said Jarboe, who used to ride bikes with groups of hundreds of cyclists.
As the pandemic drags on and state leaders relax shutdown orders, even some of the most ardent social distancers in Austin are finding themselves adjusting their own boundaries.
Social media abounds with locals getting together but staying distant: Hair appointments, kayaks on Lady Bird Lake, multi-family picnics under separate trees, sparse backyard gatherings, and cautious date nights at restaurants with masked servers.
"We always ate out a lot and have missed going into restaurants for the full dining experience," said Jeannette Larson, who has restaurant reservations Wednesday for the first time since the shutdown. "I've been impressed by their safety measures, so we are going for it."
"Semi-socially distant" is how local attorney Lenore Shefman describes her occasional visits "with folks I trust."
"We still practice safety like washing hands, and nobody is coughing or sneezing, and we stay outside," Shefman said.
Austin politicians and health officials worry that some locals will take it too far.
"There's more disease in the community now than there has ever been," said Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority. "That should be a warning sign to folks that the time for caution is not over."
The safety message still resonates with those who are finding what they say are reasonably safe loopholes.
Tara Hall, a content strategist who has been isolating alone, agreed to a getaway this weekend with a longtime travel companion taking the same precautions.
The two chose a secluded, vacant AirBnB to make contact tracing easier if either of them winds up exposed.
"I'm nervous but willing to take this mental break with one person I trust," she said. "It feels like I've had a two-and-a-half-month-week, in a way, and this will be my weekend. I can't wait to feel clear-headed after this trip, even if it's short-lived."
Jarboe and the others say they are simply coping with the reality that their old lives may not return for a long time.
"Previous to this, my world was pretty much all friends and bike rides," she said. "Having small 'safe' gatherings and bike rides with a handful of my closest friends helps me stay sane and gives me a small taste of what normal life used to be."
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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.