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As Covid-19 and climate crisis continue, Brigid Shea persists

Monday, December 28, 2020 by Alyssa Weinstein

A tumultuous 2020 brought oceans of hardships for many, and Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said she still can’t quite believe everything that happened this year.

“Covid-19 has been just surreal,” Shea said. “Are we really living through a global pandemic that has altered everyone’s lives and killed millions of people? The answer is yes, but it feels like a bad movie or book.”

With a year that felt dystopian, Shea and her colleagues recalibrated their priorities from focusing primarily on environmental issues to providing all the resources and help they could muster for the county residents in greatest need. Yet, throughout this rocky year, Shea never let her climate projects fall to the wayside.

Shea has advocated for a range of efforts to combat the effects of climate change since her election to the Commissioners Court in 2015, and before that as a member of Austin City Council from 1993-1996. The pandemic, she said, is one more of the many terrible effects of the climate crisis.

“If you go back and read the original testimony from the first U.S. scientists to publicly testify to Congress about climate change, one of the things that was mentioned was an increase in worldwide pandemics as the planet gets hotter,” Shea said. “As the population swells with more and more people, there will be greater interaction between humans and animals and the disease vectors will spread more readily.”

Shea emphasized that people need to understand this because another pandemic could happen.

“We must learn from this pandemic because there will be more,” Shea said. “This is not a one-off, and for me I think that’s been a really sobering part of this experience.”

Shea said it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that the city and county realized how outdated Austin’s public health system is in regard to its operations and functionality. This was a startling observation that was made not only in Austin, but in many other public health systems across the nation, according to Shea. Among the many lessons from 2020, she said, was a renewed sense of vigilance for holding public institutions accountable.

Shea said without the generous help and support of her colleagues, including Travis County staff, justices of the peace and county commissioners, the work she helped produce this year wouldn’t have been possible.

Shea won the 2020 Annual Texas Energy Summit Lifetime Achievement award for her ongoing work. Among many of her initiatives as commissioner, she led a successful push to implement a purple pipe system in four of the county’s largest buildings to save millions of gallons of water a year, and has collaborated with a neighborhood in her precinct to set up a neighborhood fire drill as part of her efforts to prepare residents for wildfires.

She is also proud of her advocacy for setting up a local hot meals program for those in need this year. The idea stemmed from Shea’s neighbor, also a food entrepreneur, who realized that many restaurants have a surplus of food that ends up going to waste. The neighbor created a proposal to prepare hot meals from that unused food and deliver them to people in need. The proposal was presented to county executives and the program was funded. And thus, the hot meal delivery program was born.

“We asked, where do people need the most help? And what can we do about this?” Shea said. “It’s important for people to understand that the county takes care of people who need help, or we try to.”

The program has served tens of thousands of meals so far and has delivered over 8,000 meals a week, Shea said.

Another item on her agenda that hasn’t received much attention was her work as a board member of the Capital Area Council of Governments to extend the reach of the Warn Central Texas emergency notification system from 7 percent of the county to 70 percent. Officials can now alert more people about major weather events, Shea said, so residents can “get the hell out and seek shelter.”

While the pandemic will continue to dominate much of the commissioners’ work going into 2021, Shea has started to look toward programs that encourage telecommuting, continuing her climate work.

“When everyone had to transition to work from home pretty quickly in March, one of the biggest impacts from that was how all the congestion on our roadways disappeared overnight,” Shea said. “It was the largest real-time experiment in telecommuting that had ever been conducted.”

Shea and soon-to-retire Commissioner Gerald Daugherty worked together to sponsor an item urging county staff to pursue 75 percent telecommuting among eligible employees on a permanent basis. It passed unanimously.

“By having a large percentage of our employees telecommute, we are radically reducing the second-largest source of our greenhouse gas emission and we’re cleaning up air quality at the same time,” Shea said. “So there are multiple, multiple benefits from (telecommuting).”

While 2020 was full of surprises, Shea said in the end, everyone will learn hard lessons and it will create change for the better for the new year.

“I may be hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe that – especially at the federal level – we will come out of this pandemic stronger,” Shea said.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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