Zilker-area resident Ashley Bowling said she's been participating in outdoor gym classes since the fall, recently shifting to indoor sessions with mask wearers at Castle Hill Fitness.
"It feels really good to be getting back into it because it's just not the same when you're (working out) by yourself in your living room," Bowling said. "It's a step toward normalcy."
However, not everyone shares Bowling's excitement, with some touting a bit of apprehension as things return to something resembling pre-pandemic life.
South Austinite Barbara Castro said she's concerned to possibly go back to in-person employment after working remotely for months. She said she not only fears contracting COVID-19 but also driving in traffic as the area's typical congestion subsided during the pandemic when residents stayed home. "I've been so used to working from home that a commute of 20 or 30 minutes just seems daunting right now," she said.
Castro also voiced concern about paying for her young son's after-school childcare, a luxury she provided in the remote workplace.
Making the transition
Dr. Mike Brooks, a psychologist in private practice in Austin, says almost everyone is going to be feeling a certain level of anxiety, nervousness and self consciousness about returning to social and business situations.
"This transition will be bumpy but we're all going to be on this bumpy ride together," Brooks said. "There's some comfort in knowing there's nothing wrong or bad or defective about us. We're going to struggle a bit as we return to normal."
Psychologist Dr. Mike Brooks says many people will feel anxious, nervous and/or self-conscious about returning to social and work situations after the past year of quarantine.
After a year of staying in, avoiding traffic, sanitizing excessively and wearing masks, the transitional period the state is in where people are not required to wear masks and social distancing practices have eased per the governor's order, it can be intimidating for some to imagine a return to pre-pandemic life. Brooks suggested easing back into social situations by first opting for a restaurant visit as opposed to a larger scale gathering such as a concert. Even for Brooks, who received the COVID-19 vaccine, dining in a crowded restaurant recently "felt a little weird."
"When you learn how to swim, you don't just go into the deep end; you start with the shallow water first," Brooks said. "Challenge yourself a little bit but don't stretch too far all at once."
During the past year, society has been so sensitized and conditioned to be fearful and worried, he said. He proposed individuals maintain a social distance from others at first, before getting more comfortable being closer, and advised those fearful to talk about the transition with friends and family.
"As we are slowly acclimating back, the experiences will be self-reinforcing—the fears will naturally recede as we go out," Brooks said. "Trust the process."
A hunger for normalcy
Back at Castle Hill Fitness, General Manager Michele Melkerson-Granryd said she's begun to see a gradual uptick in the gym class sizes, although the facility still practices social distancing, mask wearing and walled workout pods that provide single exercise spaces. The facility was closed for three months at the start of the pandemic before offering online, virtual workouts, but now she says people want to get back to working out with their buddies.
Castle Hill Fitness General Manager Michele Melkerson-Granryd leads a spin class at the program's Westlake facility. She said she's begun to see a gradual uptick in the gym class sizes as the state opens up. (Leslee Bassman)
Melkerson-Granryd said some members have a goal of getting back to their pre-pandemic body while those recently vaccinated are feeling safer and ready for a full gym routine. She said those returning to an exercise routine should do so gradually.
Her advice: "For anybody who did take a lot of time off, to not beat themselves up too much because there's nothing we can do about it now. And to be kind as they come back. Their body will remember what it's like to be in better shape but it does take time. Be patient and work with somebody who will motivate you and give you the challenges you need at the right time."
Austin Bergstrom airport before the pandemic.
Keith Waldon, who owns local travel agency Departure Lounge, said clients continued to travel during the year but did so by taking private transportation and staying in private accommodations or resorts with standalone units.
However, since November, he's seen "a dramatic increase" in general bookings and short term travel, folks wanting to depart in two or three weeks, said Waldon, adding that air travel and hotel stays are also on the rise. He attributed the upswing to recent vaccinations.
"Once people get their second shot, they're ready to head to the airport," Waldon said.
Recently, his team has been selling domestic trips and vacations to Mexico, the Caribbean and Africa. Waldon said he's been booking a few cruises for late this year but mostly for 2022 and 2023, with the pandemic's flexible cancellation policies extending into the future.
"People have just been stuck at home for so long (that) they really, really want to get out there," he said. "And with the vaccination, they're feeling comfortable to do it."
A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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