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In 2013, two young butchers opened Salt & Time on Austin's East Side. Ben Runkle had a background in cured meats and had been running pop-up stores and a farmers market stand. Bryan Butler had been in charge of the meat department at Wheatsville Co-op. Together, they created an upscale shop and restaurant that buys whole carcasses directly from sustainable Texas ranchers.
Earlier this year, when Runkle saw that restaurants were closing in other cities because of the coronavirus, he began to have discussions with his managers. It was clear he would have to adjust his business to keep it alive and support his employees. Already having a retail component meant he had the licenses and know-how to make rapid changes.
When Salt & Time had to close its dine-in business, Runkle converted the restaurant's bar to a retail sales space. To help customers keep a safe distance from each other, he marked off six-foot increments along the bar. He had already been selling some food staples, and he increased the assortment, also adding vegetables in bulk. The shop also began selling a variety of prepared foods, alongside its take-out service.
The restaurant had been baking its own bread for years. It quadrupled its baking program, to make use of the extra capacity among its chefs and sous-chefs.
Vincent Tomasino, Salt & Time's retail manager, says regulars are coming into the shop, as well as people who do not usually frequent Salt & Time. He says customers are expressing gratitude that they can come to the shop instead of visiting large grocery stores.
While many are doubling down on staples, some still go for the luxury offerings.
"There are people eating well, living large, into the apocalypse," says Tomasino. "We sold a couple of wagyu rib eye yesterday to a guy who was celebrating his 30th birthday alone. He was going to cook himself a steak and practice the guitar."
The reorientation has been successful. Runkle says he has not had to lay off any employees and has been able to give his staff full hours. Sales are strong.
"From a financial perspective, we haven't had time to slow down and crunch the numbers," he says, "but compared to 99.9%, or even all of the other restaurants in town, we are in a healthy situation."
He is trying to help some other local restaurants by selling their products. Salt & Time carries pizza dough and sauce from Bufalina, pasta from L'Oca d'Oro and hot sauce and seasoning salt from Lenoir. Runkle also bought an unneeded supply of milk from a nearby coffee shop.
Salt & Time has been committed to sourcing from local farms. At the moment, the store is buying everything locally when it is available and occasionally bringing in other products from further away.
Runkle expects some supply-chain complications to arise as the coronavirus pandemic continues, and he thinks that local sourcing will allow Salt & Time to weather the crisis. Close contact with customers should also help guide the business.
"The fact that we have a clear and more direct relationship with our customers and suppliers will allow us to continue to serve through this craziness," he says. "We are ordering daily from farms, calling them up and finding out what they have available."
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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.