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Chris Del Conte, the always-upbeat University of Texas athletics director, is confident there will be Longhorn football this fall.
"I'm fully optimistic," Del Conte said Tuesday in an interview with Austonia. "There will be football at DKR [Memorial Stadium] this fall."
But as of mid-May, the UT AD has no firm answers on what sort of impact the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will have in September. UT's season opener against South Florida, Sept. 5, still is on the calendar.
All Del Conte can do is plan for every scenario, whether that means robust business-as-usual for an athletic program that generated nearly $224 million in revenue last fiscal year; playing a modified schedule with or without fans in the stands; or a doomsday fall without football, the sport that pays most of the bills.
Del Conte said he has four committees working on issues relating to the athletes, staff, the games and game management when or if they're played. If football happens, chances are other fall sports—mainly women's volleyball and soccer—also will receive the go-ahead.
On March 12, the NCAA canceled all college sports competitions for the spring. Individual leagues, like the Big 12 and Southeastern conferences, then told schools that football teams couldn't conduct the traditional 15-session spring workouts that usually end with a giant scrimmage. The leagues also dictated how much interaction coaches could have with athletes, most of whom moved home after campuses closed. The restrictions will be reassessed by May 31.
As parts of the country are starting to reopen, so, too, is the sports world, with professional baseball, golf and basketball moving toward limited reopening.
So what about college football, which is celebrated across the state? There already are some parameters being set.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said last week he doesn't think football will be played at schools if campuses aren't open this fall.
"All of the commissioners and every president that I've talked to is in clear agreement," Emmert said in an interview posted on the NCAA's Twitter account. "If you don't have students on campus, you don't have student-athletes on campus. That doesn't mean it has to be up and running in the full normal model, but you've got to treat the health and well-being of the athletes at least as much as the regular students. So if a school doesn't reopen, then they're not going to be playing sports. It's really that simple."
Del Conte said UT will be open this fall.
Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp told the Texas Tribune last week that Aggie students will be able to return to campus for fall classes—and football. Baylor and Texas Tech also are planning on reopening.
Coaches have indicated that in order to play football in the fall, the teams would need about six weeks of practice time. There would be about two weeks of orientation, or what the team missed in spring practices. The remaining time would be considered preseason training camp.
That means if the season is to start on time, players would have to be allowed back by mid-July.
Meanwhile, athletic directors are working on social-distancing plans for the games.
Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork, in a teleconference last week, said he's working on the following questions:
"How do we make people feel comfortable? What does social distancing look like, you know, come the fall? What are all the best practices and protocols that are out there? All those things are on the table, and we're constantly going through them, and again, these things are all fluid. The good thing is we do have time to make those decisions."
Del Conte said any plans are fluid, depending on how well the virus is controlled. But in mid-May, there is the luxury of time.
"We're not making any rash decisions at the University of Texas," Del Conte said. "We have an optimistic view, we'll be here in the fall."
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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.