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SXSW 2021 is all about the future and how we, as American people, can change it for the better. UT alumna and New York Times bestselling author of "Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose and the Fight for a Fair America" Stacey Abrams is tackling that goal in the form of representation and free civic engagement.
Voting rights activist and politician Stacey Abrams' and science fiction author N.K. Jemisin took the SXSW virtual stage on Tuesday. Abrams' keynote had a surprise beginning from musician and queer icon Janelle Monáe, who performed her song "Turntables" with a heartfelt message to Abrams, who Monáe said made her proud to be a Georgia voter.
Abrams and Jemisin declared themselves big fans of each other's work—Jemisin said she was internally "fangirling." Abrams said that Jeminin's "street cred among the Abrams clan is high."
Though the session was cut short by technical issues, Abrams, who served as a Georgia state representative for 11 years and seven as minority leader, said her mastery of storytelling intertwines with politics because she is able to give people a reason to engage.
"It's all about telling a story, but you have to center the voter, center the citizen, center of the person in that narrative. If it's about someone else, and they can't see themselves either benefiting from or being victimized by, then you give them a reason not to pay attention," Abrams said. "I've always tried to make my work about centering the communities that need to be heard, especially those who are never part of the narrative, unless they are seen as the villain or as an impediment to other success. By centering mentally those communities, essentially those narratives, create space for other people to tell better stories by going to the polls by being involved by being civically engaged."
Growing up "a daughter of the South," watching her neighbors fly confederate flags signifying the war to enslave her ancestors, Abrams said her responsibility is to fight for her right to be heard. Fair Fight, the organization Abrams started in 2018 to fight voter suppression, empowers others to do the same.
Abrams and Fair Fight engaged more communities of color to vote in 2020 than ever before in Georgia's history. During the election cycle, Abrams proudly said they elected the first Jewish Senator and first Black Senator from Georgia and were promptly hit with more than 50 bills trying to undo equal voting rights access.
"We did it by telling them a story about their power, that if they wanted relief from COVID, if they wanted access to voting rights, if they want criminal justice reform that is real, if they want policing reform, these are the things they need to do," Abrams said. "They need to show up to vote, they need to make a plan to bring their families—they listened."
When Abrams lost her run for governor in 2018, she learned that she needed to do better, be faster, get stronger, but when there has only been two Black woman senators and no Black woman governors, she found herself getting a question that she feels white men don't get asked:
"Are you qualified?"
Abrams said she knows that Black people occupying space in 2021 requires audacity and giving up allows the false narrative that she is somehow lesser continue.
"There is absolutely a discomfiture with the audacity of black minds, the audacity of people of color, thinking we belong in spaces, declaring we deserve to have access," Abrams said. "I was chastised for refusing to demur and pretend that I didn't have the capacity to do the job because I don't have the title and the positions that the people were used to seeing have."
Using a narrative she teaches to fifth graders, Abrams explained the hurt that voter suppression causes to close out her session: A law bans peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school but that is Tommy's favorite food. Tommy brings a PB&J sandwich to school and gets caught, so now there is a law that says his parents must go to jail. Who has the right to decide whether or not PB&J sandwiches are allowed?
"We have to follow the bill, we have to understand that there are going to be the cashew farmers who want to take down big peanut, because there are peanut farmers who understand that losing peanuts will mean that the butters become more expensive," Abrams said. "We have a governor who has to decide if she will sign that bill or not. It is the right of voters to decide whether peanuts will rise again or if cashews will become the nut for the future."
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As Q2 packs fans like sardines, could city, CDC recommendations disrupt the 'biggest party in Austin'?
In a scene that seemed to mark the pandemic's triumphant end, over 20,000 mostly maskless fans packed into Q2 Stadium for Austin FC's debut at Austin's first professional sports stadium in June. That mask-free utopia couldn't have been possible even a month before, and it may not be possible once more as Austin and the CDC returns to mask recommendations again for the first time since May.
Austin returned to Stage 4 restrictions on July 23 as case rates tripled since the beginning of the month and hospital beds once again filled with COVID patients. The spike comes after the highly contagious Delta variant was detected in Travis County. In its Stage 4 announcement, APH said its recommendations will not affect large events, such as Austin FC games, from operating.
More recently, the CDC updated its recommendation for vaccinated people on Wednesday, saying that all people in high-risk areas—including Austin with more than 50 COVID cases per 100,000 people—wear masks.
With businesses reinstating mask policies and new fear in the air, Q2's carefree party atmosphere may be affected. The club released the following statement to Austonia: "Austin FC encourages all guests to observe Austin Public Health's recommendations and take appropriate action based on individual circumstances."
Fan clubs react
Some Austin FC fans are concerned about taking their young kids ineligible for the vaccine to home matches. (Austin FC/Twitter)
Austin Anthem member Seth Rau said he's heard a few people express more concern about home matches. Still, the demand for attending matches at Q2, which regularly reaches full capacity despite a lackluster first-season performance, is not going away anytime soon.
"We're starting to hear stories like, 'Oh, I have a 10 year old kid. My kid can't be vaccinated yet,'" Rau said. "So I think certain people are less willing to maybe go than in the past, but with everyone who doesn't want to go there are five people ready to claim their seats."
Rau said only few wore masks before last week, but at the last match on July 22, he said close to 5% wore masks. Based on sheer estimation as well as what he's heard, Rau said he expects a significant minority to pull out the masks once again when Austin FC plays on Saturday.
Masking recommendations are fine as long as the stadium remains at full capacity, Rau said.
"It's an annoyance, but it's not a big deal," Rau said. "I think if they ever started reducing capacity, that's where there would be true hell to pay."
While supporters groups, like the city of Austin, can't enforce mask mandates, Rau told Austonia they'll strongly recommend masking in certain situations, including taking a bus up to Dallas for the upcoming FC Dallas match. Rau said Stage 4 has brought new concerns and paperwork into the picture for the road trip.
"It's wild. Like, as a supporters' group, we never thought we'd have to worry about collecting people's health records," Rau said. "It is extremely important to us to keep our Verde familia safe,"
Could Q2 become a "superspreader"?
Some have drawn parallels to last fall when City Council Member Greg Casar and Austin Public Health officials strongly advised against in-person fans at University of Texas football games while in Stage 4.
No public official, including Austin FC fan Steve Adler, has commented, which a few have criticized. A city in which 63% of those eligible are fully vaccinated is different from the fall of 2020, however, and Q2 is still within CDC guidelines that don't recommend masks for those fully vaccinated while outdoors.
Still, some share concerns about the crowded stadium becoming a "superspreader," especially after a mass COVID outbreak in Scotland was tied to fans attending Euro 2020 soccer matches. Up to 2,000 fans traced their infection back to a single match, and controversial journalist Piers Morgan, who was fully vaccinated, said he tested positive for COVID on Tuesday after attending the Euro Cup final.
Now THATS a super spreader for the Delta variant. Learned today that the virus spreads like smoke in the air. Let’s get vaxxed up y’all.— Nick Garza (@nickrgarza) July 23, 2021
No matter the changes, Rau said that the fan club has supported Austin FC even in the strictest of COVID policies and won't stop now.
"We dealt with this at Colorado when we took a couple hundred people to Denver," Rau said. "But we were still able to have a great time in the middle of a pandemic."
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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