When London resident Jess Rimer put all of her off days in one to go on vacation this November, many of her coworkers thought she was taking a much-needed breather to a warmer, more tropical locale. While Austin is certainly warmer, Rimer had a different motive in mind.
Rimer and her husband, Frank, set out on a long-awaited trek across multiple countries to visit family in Toronto and Austin just after the 18-month travel ban was lifted.
"Everyone's like, 'Oh, where are you going, somewhere sunny?' And I'm like, 'Well, yes'... but (it's for) family," Rimer said.
The year-and-a-half pandemic pause on nonessential travel for non-U.S citizens left many families suddenly cut off by borders. But many Zoom holidays later, thousands of long-separated loved ones had tearful reunions at airports across the country this week as the ban was lifted for vaccinated travelers.
Rimer came to Austin to spend a week with her stepdad Michael Langolf after spending years apart. Instead of planning something grand for the reunion, Rimes said the trio is looking to slow down and soak it all in.
Jess Rimes (left) and her husband Frank are visiting her stepdad Michael Langolf (right) after 18 months apart due to the travel ban. (Claire Partain/Austonia)
"In Canada, we were there for a few weeks, and it was literally nonstop to see family and friends," Rimer said. "It's kind of like one big trip now... I don't know when we'll be able to see each other next, (probably) next year when we have more vacation time."
Austin doctor Harry Thomas already has family visiting his Austin home. His parents, who hadn't seen his two young sons in two years, made it into town on Monday, the same day the ban was lifted.
The U.S. is lifting its travel ban on Monday.
Wasting no time, my parents—who haven't seen the grandkids in 2 years—arrive from London on Monday.
— Harry Thomas (@DrHarryThomas) November 7, 2021
Everything fell into place—the ban happened to be lifted on his oldest son's birthday, and his youngest son was finally able to connect with his grandparents after years apart.
Harry Thomas' (left) parents visited his young sons for the first time in years after the travel ban was lifted in November. (Harry Thomas)
"There's nothing to replace that in-person contact," Thomas said. "The last time they saw him, he was like a year old, so we weren't even sure what he'd be like, but somehow he just instantly connected. I think he kind of recognizes them as grandparents in life as opposed to on the screen."
Thomas' parents initially planned to come to the States back in July, when it was rumored that bans would be lifted before the onset of the third COVID surge. As a family of avid Austin FC fans, Thomas wanted to take them to a match, and with safety protocols in place—travelers that are non-U.S. citizens are required to be both vaccinated and receive a negative test before they can make it across—he plans on bringing them over again for a match as soon as possible.
"It was great! I'm happy they were able to come and everything went safely," Thomas said. "Now we're just reconnecting and spending time together."
As the ban was lifted, airports across the country awaited high traffic and long lines from travelers eager to see their loved ones after countless nights of FaceTime. While Austin-Bergstrom International Airport doesn't have specific stats on arrivals, ABIA's Sam Haynes said traffic has mostly leveled off since its record-breaking weekend when Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix was in town.
The airport has recently made it easier for families to reunite with new international flights. British Airways resumed a nonstop service from Austin to London on Oct. 13, while American Airlines began nonstop service to Cancun, Mexico and San Juan, Puerto Rico on Oct. 7. American also added new nonstop destinations including Liberia, Costa Rica; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in early November.
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Just as the world takes a breath from the Delta variant-induced third COVID surge that pushed hospitals past capacity this summer, a new variant—the omicron—is forcing countries around the world to once again consider shutting their doors.
It's too early to tell whether the variant will have the devastating effects of the Delta variant, the Mu variant—which accounted for 3% of U.S. cases before dropping off almost entirely by October—or somewhere in between. But as omicron continues to rise sharply in all provinces of South Africa, the Biden administration is reintroducing some travel restrictions that went into effect Monday.
As the variant spreads to countries around the world, including Canada, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, the World Health Organization declared omicron a "variant of concern"—though some are calling the move premature.
What is omicron?
The omicron variant, B.1.1.529, is now under strict watch from the WHO after quickly spreading throughout Southern Africa.
It's genetically different from the Alpha and Delta variants and has up to 30 mutations in its genetic code, leading some to worry that the risk of retransmission from those who have already had COVID could be high. The strain's mutations could also aid omicron in beating out other strains and spreading more quickly to hosts.
Omicron is the latest version of the coronavirus to cause concern. Here’s what we know about where it’s spread so far and what makes it different than other variants that came before. https://t.co/ncciXnIuw9
— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 29, 2021
It appears to be doing the trick. While an Associated Press report found that case numbers in South Africa are still well below other pandemic peaks—3,220 new cases were reported in South Africa on Saturday— up to 90% of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng are omicron.
The strain's effects seem to be mild so far, and hospitals haven't been overburdened yet, though hospitalizations are rising.
And doctors worry that the full extent of the variant hasn't been realized. Vaccine hesitancy is strong among South Africa's youngest population—22% of those aged 18 to 34 are vaccinated—and most of those infected with COVID have been in those younger age groups. Doctors worry that older age groups will be more adversely affected.
And while experts in the country expected a fourth surge and possible variant, the omicron still came as a "shock" as it quickly spread to all nine South African provinces and other continents. It's now the first strain labeled as a "variant of concern" since the Delta variant.
It's unclear if the variant is more immune to vaccines, although some signs indicate that it's a possibility.
Where has it been detected?
Cases of the Covid omicron variant have appeared in more than a dozen countries as of Monday. https://t.co/2bPapBIYK2 pic.twitter.com/idnQ6LjIfH
— NBC News Graphics (@NBCNewsGraphics) November 29, 2021
The omicron strain still hasn't been detected in dozens of countries, and it's far from the first strain to make a mark since Delta. But it's coincided with a quick uptick in cases in South Africa, where it was originally found, and became the dominant strain in Pretoria, a city of around 750,000, in just a few weeks.
Omicron is now present in nearby Botswana and has jumped on board flights to Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. Hong Kong has detected three cases, while 10 European nations including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Germany have found a total of 45 cases. Canada has detected three cases, and none have yet been found in the United States.
What has been done?
Against the wishes of both South Africa and the WHO, several countries have decided to once again shut their doors.
After detecting an omicron case, Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, while Morocco suspended incoming international air travel for two weeks. Dozens of countries are restricting travel from Southern Africa to South Africa's chagrin—the government said travel restrictions are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
The WHO also called for borders to remain open as closing borders appears to have a limited effect on the spread of variants, and many countries are hesitant to clamp down on restrictions that have limited its citizens for so long.
The United States said in a statement Friday that it would restrict travel from eight southern African countries except for citizens and permanent U.S. residents who test negative for the virus.
White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that it's "too early to say" whether tightened COVID restrictions will be needed to combat omicron but that citizens must be ready to do “anything and everything” to prevent its spread.
When will we know more?
The WHO said it will take around two weeks to gauge the full effects of omicron, from its ability to evade vaccines to its contagiousness.
For now, countries have once again urged their citizens to get vaccinated. Some vaccine companies have already spoken about the strain, including Moderna, which said Sunday that a new vaccine that protects against the variant could be released in early 2022 if needed.
For now, Fauci said that the country must "prepare for the worst" just in case omicron becomes the culprit of yet another surge.
“Inevitably, it will be here. The question is will we be prepared for it? If and when, and it’s going to be when, it comes here hopefully we will be ready for it,” Fauci said.
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Homeowners in Windcrest, Texas don't take Christmas lightly. Decking out their home in thousands of lights, one Windcrest couple even won ABC’s Texas episode of “Great Christmas Light Fight” that aired Sunday.
Known as "Christmas sweethearts," John and Brenda Wilson were awarded $50,000 after going up against fellow Texans, including a family in Amarillo and two families in Corpus Christi, in the ninth season premiere of the lights show.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
Their holiday display featured a hand-built sled, a train called the Peppermint Expressway with actual peppermint smoke coming out of it and Santa's reindeer "in training." Designer and judge Taniya Nayak noted the linework of the lights displayed on the roof and the positioning of the red and lime green color palette.
"Right off the bat when the lights turned on, I couldn't believe how beautiful these peppermint lights were... it's just such a fun, happy, yummy, delicious vibe to it," Nayak said when she announced the Wilsons were the winners. "It really made a smile go from one ear to the other on my face."
Judge Nayak said she also enjoyed that their display had different stories behind each section.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
John, or "Mr. Christmas" as Brenda called him, said he has been putting on a Christmas lights display for over 20 years—and it's only got better since he met his Mrs. Clause 12 years ago. The two said they met online and were 98% compatible.
"Brenda and I grew up back in the 50s when things were very simple, so we wanted to create something from when we were growing up," John said on the show.
And their efforts paid off: along with their monetary prize, the couple earned a light-bulb-shaped trophy.
KSAT reports the home got the attention of the show's casting directors last year, who encouraged them to apply to be on the show. The show was then shot last year, but the couple didn't learn they won until this year.
While being on the show is their intro to stardom, locals are familiar with the Wilsons' yearly display in the light-centric Windcrest. Each year their home is part of the Windcrest Light Up, a decades-old tradition where residents go all-out with their holiday light displays. They've won at least three grand prizes in the Windcrest contest and several other category first-place prizes.
The Windcrest Light Up kicks off Dec. 4.
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The countdown to the holidays has begun—do you know where your presents are? If you didn’t get your shopping done over the Black Friday weekend, never fear, there are plenty of department store alternatives to check out right here in Austin.
Shopping local is the gift that keeps on giving, so here are some local artisans to keep in mind.
Willinglee Gift Boxes—1412 E. 37th St.
For the recipient who has it all, give them the unexpected with a carefully curated gift box for any occasion. From the “Autumn Indulgence” package that includes beer caramel candies and a massage candle to the “Cozy Cottage” package that includes upcycled tea towels and a California poppy grow kit, you’ll find new local goodies to get them hooked on.
Moonthyme—2015 Manor Rd.
For your local homebody, get them some upscale home goods to enhance their cozy abode. Moonthyme, whose slogan is “thoughtful provisions to inspire,” deals out ceramic spice jars, handwoven decorative baskets, luxurious bath products and everything in between to keep your home looking comfy even in the cold weather.
Yarrow and Sage ATX—701 E 53rd St.
For the one who is counting the seconds until the next spooky season, Yarrow and Sage ATX has all the crystals, potions and bulk incense galore. The store sells all the astrological curios an enthusiast could dream of from pendulums, pipes and tarot cards to really lean into the witchy vibe.
TOYS & GAMES
Austin Nature Works—2389 Stratford Dr.
Who’s to say that toys can’t be pretty? Not only are the toys from Austin Nature Works an aesthetic choice for young learners, but they’re also sustainably made and will plant a tree for every purchase made.
Tanuki Games—6929 Airport Blvd.
For all your tabletop needs, Tanuki Games is taking family game night to the next level with hard-to-find games from all over the world. Try out Dune: House Secrets, which coincides with the new film, Machi Koro 2, a Japanese Monopoly-esque game, or the elusive Game of Cat & Mouth.
Toy Joy—403 W 2nd St. and 4631 Airport Blvd.
So popular among Austinites, local toy retailer Toy Joy even has a location inside the Austin Bergstrom-International Airport. From mainstream toys that you’ve seen on TV to potato clock kits, models of the “This is Fine” meme, to DIY models, you might even find some whimsical gifts for the adults in your life.
Faraday's Kitchen Store—12918 Shops Pkwy
In a land where food is king, get the chef in your life the tools to make magic happen in the kitchen. Located in the Galleria, Faraday’s Kitchen Store carries cookware for indoor, outdoor, baking and electronics. Plus, if you want to send a well-intentioned hint, Faraday also offers cooking classes.
Give the gift of good eating this holiday season with Farmhouse Delivery, a local company that brings the goodies of your local farmer's market right to your door. From meats, produce, baked goods or ready-prepared meal kits, you can most likely get it local and delivered to wherever you need.
For your favorite tea lover, why not challenge their palate this holiday season with a custom-made tea-filled gift box. Local female-founded tea curator Sips By will send out a box of four news teas every month to your herbal-obsessed loved ones.
Black Pearl Books—4803 Burnet Road
Sweeping the nation with its T-Pain and Normani mini-film for Black-owned Friday, Black Pearl Books is founded on a principle of keeping local dollars in the community and welcoming all in its store. It’s not all books either—grab a Lizzo coloring book, merch, puzzles and cookbooks as well in-store.
BookWoman—5501 N. Lamar Blvd.
The female-run book store set up shop 45 years ago and has been running ever since with stocked shelves by women and a passion for uplifting marginalized voices. Check out BookWoman’s staff picks because it is never too late to inspire a love of reading.
Austin Creative Reuse—2005 Wheless Ln.
If you’re looking to foster the creative spirit this holiday season, head to Austin Creative Reuse, where you can find lightly-used bulk craft and school supplies for a fraction of the new price. You might have to do some digging but imagine the look of a handmade craft basket under the tree!
For that special someone who always brings a pop of color to the room, consider gifting them a new handmade accessory to don. Lys Santamaria’s unique beaded designs are made with love and honor the world around us with beaded earrings inspired by Winter Storm Uri, magic eyes and statement accessories.
Austin is revitalized in WatercolorATX’s dreamy portraits of scenes familiar to Hill Country dwellers. You can have a custom watercolor done of your favorite place, person or pet, or choose from already-painted originals or prints.
CLOTHING & JEWELRY
The Verde Store—506 Congress Ave. and 10414 McKalla Place
Team spirit lasts all year long, even when fútbol season is over, so grab the Austin FC die-hard you know some quality merch. Inside the Verde Store you’ll find the signature shade of Verde and options for all types of fans.
Vinca—1800 E. 4th St.
These quirky little accessories aren’t for the faint of heart but they are guaranteed to catch some eyes. Doling out chainsaw earrings, stabbed heart brooches, alien tractor beams and sea critter jewelry, Vinca’s accessories will make for an… unforgettable gift.
Viva La Silk
Hand-dyed, sewn and styled in Austin, Viva La Silk’s silk accessories are made with versatility and sustainability in mind. The scarves, robes, tops, pants, veils and more are made from 100% reclaimed silk, so the “wearable art” pieces are affordable and comfy.
There are hundreds of local businesses to support—even if it isn't on this list, you can probably get it local.
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