Whispers

Thursday, July 2, 2020 by Tai Moses

What’s closed for the Fourth of July?

Besides the Austin Monitor, which will be closed for the holiday on Friday, city offices and municipal facilities will be closed on Friday and Saturday, July 3 and 4. The Austin Animal Center is closed Friday, but open Saturday, by appointment only. Trash, recycling and compost collection for Austin Resource Recovery customers remains on schedule Friday. All Austin Public Library branches, the Recycled Reads Bookstore and the Austin History Center are closed Friday and Saturday. Because of the increase in Covid-19 cases, all city parks and recreational facilities (e.g., pools, golf courses, tennis courts, boat ramps, recreation/cultural centers, museums, Austin Nature & Science Center, Zilker Botanical Garden, preserves, etc.) will be closed from Friday, July 3 through Sunday, July 5. Barton Springs Pool and Deep Eddy Pool are closed until further notice. The annual H-E-B Austin Symphony July 4th Concert and Fireworks event at Vic Mathias Shores has been canceled. Austin Public Health is pleading with community members to stay home this weekend and help slow the spread by celebrating safely in your own backyard. 


Thursday, July 2, 2020 by Tai Moses

AUS announces new Covid safety measures

While passenger traffic has been down at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, airport officials and employees have not just been sitting around twiddling their thumbs and playing Animal Crossing. The city has just announced a slew of new measures aimed at keeping airport staff and travelers safe during the pandemic. AUS “has already enhanced cleaning practices and installed signage to promote adherence to public health guidance,” according to a news release. Among other recent changes at the airport are new signs encouraging physical distancing, face coverings and good hygiene; extra hand sanitizing stations; protective Plexiglas barriers at ticket counters and gates; and additional cleaning of TSA security checkpoints and other areas of the terminal. Restrooms are now cleaned every 90 minutes and get an extra deep-cleaning overnight. The airport has temporarily closed the Economy Lot “to mitigate the crowded nature of parking shuttles. Parking rates in the Blue and Red Garages have been discounted so passengers can safely park near the Barbara Jordan Terminal and walk a short distance to it.” Other precautions that travelers can take include using mobile boarding passes and checking in from home. Perhaps most important, most airlines now require passengers to wear face coverings while in flight, so don’t leave home without your mask.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

City revises Covid-19 guidelines chart

Anyone watching the city’s Covid-19 dashboard and its key indicators chart knows that numbers in the region are climbing; 67 people were hospitalized with the virus Tuesday, and the 7-day moving average is currently at 55, and in an orange Stage 4. On Tuesday, the city adjusted the chart used to define the stages, softening the threshold of when the city will cross into a red Stage 5. Under the old calculations, a seven-day average of 70 would put Austin/Travis County into Stage 5 restrictions. Now that threshold is an average of between 70 and 123 cases. A press release from the city explains that the new numbers take into account 1,500 hospital beds available to treat Covid-19, and the average length of hospital stays, which according to the press release “changes daily.” The release elaborates, “In Stage 4, the exact hospitalization average trigger will depend on the rate of increase. A faster increase in the daily average will trigger Stage 5 risk recommendations when the number reaches the lower end of this range.” At the moment, in Stage 4, higher-risk individuals over the age of 65 and with chronic medical conditions should avoid social gatherings and meeting with more than two people. Everyone in the community is asked to avoid groups larger than 10, practice social distancing, wear masks, wash their hands, and avoid touching their face. The new chart is embedded below.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020 by Tai Moses

LCRA closes parks for holiday weekend

The Lower Colorado River Authority has issued an alert advising the public that it will be closing its five Travis County parks for the Independence Day weekend in the hopes of discouraging public gatherings. The announcement comes on the heels of similar closures of city and county parks amid a rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the region. Gloster Bend Recreation Area, Jessica Hollis Park, McGregor Preserve, Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area and Turkey Bend Recreation Area will all be closed to the public, boat ramps included, from July 2-7. Those who have overnight reservations will receive full refunds. LCRA’s other parks are expected to remain open over the weekend, with the proviso that “Visitors must wear face coverings and should practice social distancing in the parks. No groups larger than five people are allowed, except for families or people living in the same household.”


Wednesday, July 1, 2020 by Tai Moses

Covid-19 is no reason to skip vaccinating kids

Six months ago, Austin Public Health confirmed the first case of rubella in Travis County since 1999. Just a month earlier came the first case of measles in the area in more than two decades. The reappearance of these dangerous infectious diseases is worrisome and shows that, “while Austin-Travis County has a relatively high vaccination rate, there are pockets of communities where vaccination opt-outs bring herd immunity to an unstable status,” according to a release from Austin Public Health. With the new school year around the corner, APH is urging parents to schedule wellness checks for the kids and make sure they are up to date on all required vaccinations. Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said, “While we do not yet have a vaccine to protect us against Covid-19, many scientific advances made in past decades have provided us with proven ways to protect us against diseases such as measles, polio, varicella, and many more. Ensure your family is up-to-date on necessary vaccinations so we can avoid the comeback of previously eliminated diseases in our community.” 


Wednesday, July 1, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

County transfers crossing guards to school districts

The Commissioners Court voted unanimously June 30 to have Del Valle, Lake Travis, Leander, Manor, and Round Rock ISDs assume the responsibilities of the county’s school crossing guard program beginning in the 2020-21 school year. The county currently provides supplementary funding for school crossing guard programs in these districts if their students must cross a county roadway, according to Cynthia McDonald, the county executive with the Transportation and Natural Resources Department. Going forward, the county will continue to provide funding but through an interlocal agreement, and will use Economically Disadvantaged Students statistics from the Texas Education Agency as the basis for allocating dollars. In the allocation mechanism that the county will follow, Del Valle will proportionally receive the most funding from the $1.50 motor vehicle Child Safety Fee collected by the Travis County Tax Office and portioned out between the county and 16 other jurisdictions. Manor, Round Rock, Leander and Lake Travis ISDs will receive the next largest allocations in that order. McDonald also noted that county crossing guards have the option to transition into a position with one of the school districts. There are 36 temporary guards and one Risk Safety Specialist on the county payroll for this program.


Tuesday, June 30, 2020 by Tai Moses

Barton Springs, Deep Eddy close indefinitely; county parks close for holiday weekend

As discussed at Monday’s City Council meeting, an increase in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations has closed Barton Springs and Deep Eddy pools once again, effective immediately until further notice. In addition, the city will be closing all parks and recreational facilities from Friday, July 3, through Sunday, July 5. According to a news release from the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, “This includes all city parks, as well as recreational facilities (e.g. golf courses, tennis courts, boat ramps, recreation/cultural centers, museums, Austin Nature & Science Center, Zilker Botanical Garden, preserves, etc). All pre-paid park admission passes will be credited to the park patron’s account or refunded.”

Amid the record-breaking spike in cases of coronavirus, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe is urging all local governments to cancel community events and close public spaces in advance of the Fourth of July weekend “in order to discourage social gatherings and therefore discourage spread of Covid-19.” In its own response, Travis County Parks will close all parks in its system from Thursday, July 2, at 8 p.m. to Tuesday, July 7, at 8 a.m. County officials are closely monitoring the threat to public health and are prepared to keep the park system closed until further notice if the infection rate continues to rise. A full listing of city park closures can be found at austintexas.gov/parkclosures. A list of county park closures can be found on the county’s park website. Texas State Parks remain open for day use and limited camping. More information can be found on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website.


Tuesday, June 30, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Parked scooters find a place to belong

Austin Transportation is kicking off the first phase of a six-month shared scooter parking and charging station pilot this week with 10 scooter docking stations set up mostly around downtown and other high scooter traffic areas. The docking stations belong to Swiftmile Inc., a company that considers itself “a gas station of the future” and a “smart-charging micromobility platform” according to a recent interview with CEO Colin Roche. The stations will each perform the simple task of keeping between six and eight scooters held upright and out of the middle of the sidewalk during the pilot’s first phase. But depending on when demand for scooters returns, the stations will eventually be outfitted with batteries to recharge the scooters as they are parked in the docks. Austin Transportation is aiming to kick off the second phase in late August, but ridership remains very low; this month, the city totaled about 38,000 micromobility trips compared to more than 432,000 trips in June 2019. Swiftmile normally charges scooter operators by the minute for its charging services, but will offer its services at no cost for the duration of the pilot. By reducing the need for combustion engine vehicles to round up scooters and charge them overnight, Swiftmile claims to play a pivotal role in the transition to green mobility infrastructure, making it easier for companies like Lime, which has declared zero-emission target dates, to achieve those goals while also helping declutter sidewalks for pedestrians.

Stations are located at:

  • 900 Electric Drive
  • 609 Davis St.
  • 1100 E. Fifth St.
  • 2104 Guadalupe St.
  • 401 Congress Ave.
  • 601 Congress Ave.
  • 500 W. Second St.
  • 302 E. Cesar Chavez St.
  • 114 Barton Springs Road
  • 1412 S. Congress Ave.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 by Tai Moses

New curbside collection program keeps textiles out of landfill

Many people have taken advantage of working from home to do decluttering projects and clean out their closets or garages. But until now, there’s been no way to donate these unwanted items because the usual suspects are closed. Now Austin Resource Recovery and Goodwill Central Texas have joined forces to launch a free clothing and housewares curbside collection program. ARR customers who have unwanted clothing, shoes, housewares, accessories, toys or linens may visit austintexas.gov/clothing or call 512-637-7190 to schedule a free at-home pickup. Goodwill will send a collection bag in the mail to be filled with the items; then, just set the bag out for collection on the scheduled pickup date. ARR Director Ken Snipes said in a news release about the new program, “This partnership will allow us to reduce the number of textiles going to the landfill while also supporting the local reuse economy and giving clothing and housewares a second chance at life.” According to a recent study quoted by ARR, an estimated 6.6 million pounds of clothing and textiles end up in the landfill each year.


Monday, June 29, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Early voting begins today

Early voting starts today throughout Texas in runoffs from the March primaries as well as some special elections. Polls will be open every day through July 10 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except for July 3 and 4. Election day is July 14 because Gov. Greg Abbott postponed runoffs previously scheduled for May in an attempt to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Many polling locations where early voters have previously voted are not available for this election because of the difficulty of guaranteeing social distancing. However, there are 20 early voting sites, including Austin City Hall, the Carver Branch Library, the Ben Hur Shrine Center, Travis High School, and the Bee Cave City Hall.

In Travis County and parts of Bastrop County, voters will be choosing a new state senator for District 14 because former Sen. Kirk Watson stepped down to take an academic position. Three of the six candidates in this race are well known: former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, both Democrats; and former Council Member Don Zimmerman, a Republican. Also running for the seat are Republican Waller Thomas Burns II, independent Jeff Ridgeway and Libertarian Pat Dixon. Democrats will also be choosing between Royce West and MJ Hegar to appear on the November ballot against Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

Of more interest locally is the heated contest between District Attorney Margaret Moore and challenger José Garza, and the race for County Attorney between Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh and Council Member Delia Garza. Another important race for Travis County is the contest for County Commissioner Precinct 3 between Valinda Bolton and Ann Howard. Voters must also decide between Dimple Malhotra, the current judge in County Court at Law No. 4, and her challenger Margaret Chen Kercher. Two congressional races feature runoffs on the Democratic side – the race between Mike Siegel and Pritesh Gandhi, who are vying for the opportunity to run against District 10 Rep. Michael McCaul in November, and the District 17 congressional race between Rick Kennedy and David Jaramillo. The winner of that runoff will face either Pete Sessions or Renee Swann, who are in a runoff for the Republican nomination. Democrats will also choose between Chrysta Castañeda and Roberto Alonzo as their candidate for an open position on the Railroad Commission. Republicans who live in House District 47 will have an opportunity to choose Justin Berry and Jennifer Fleck. There is also a runoff between Lani Popp and Robert Morrow for nomination as the Republican candidate for State Board of Education District 5. Most Republicans have rallied around Popp. See a ballot at the Travis County Clerk’s website.


Monday, June 29, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council to hold special called meeting today

Though technically on summer break, City Council will convene today at 1 p.m. to discuss an agenda of Covid-19-related items. Though the agenda is brief, Mayor Steve Adler went into some detail about the meeting on the City Council Message Board. In a Sunday post, he wrote that Council will take up:

o General updates from Dr. Escott and APH
o Modeling update from Dr. Meyers
o Strategy and actions to address disproportionate cases in LatinX, African American, nursing homes and other susceptible populations
o Testing and testing strategy
o Contact tracing plans and strategy
o Data availability and Dashboard
o Any anticipated needs for additional resources to increase capacity for our public health response


Monday, June 29, 2020 by Tai Moses

Revised orders prohibit outdoor gatherings of more than 100

With cases of Covid-19 continuing to surge in Central Texas, Austin-Travis County officials have issued revised orders prohibiting outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people. The revised orders come as Gov. Greg Abbott has rolled back parts of the state’s planned reopening. According to the city’s news release, “The outdoor gathering ban does not apply to places such as swimming pools, zoos, museums, etc. as long as they are operating at no more than 50 percent of the normal operating limits. Additionally, the Governor’s Order (GA-26) stipulates there is no occupancy limit for places such as religious services, youth camps, and child-care services.” The orders emphasize that all social gatherings of over 10 people should be avoided unless the people are members of the same household. Austin’s revised order also clarifies that the requirement to wear face coverings applies to children 10 years and older. The city order continues through Aug. 15 while the county order expires on July 10. Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said, “Nobody wants businesses to suffer more than they already have, but the numbers are the numbers, and the governor’s action today is essential for getting this disease back under control and to once more flatten that curve and save lives. We need people to stay home, wear masks if they have to go out and do everything they can to stay safe. We’ve all seen what happens when Covid-19 overwhelms our health care systems, including in New York City. We cannot let that happen here.” According to the county’s Covid-19 case tracker dashboard, there have been at least 8,461 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Travis County and 117 deaths, and 351 people are currently hospitalized to date.


Monday, June 29, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Texas Rowing Center contract renewed, with stipulations

The Texas Rowing Center has been located along the shores of Lady Bird Lake for decades and has consistently renewed its boating concessions contract with the city. However, members of the Parks and Recreation Board noted Tuesday that certain aspects of the company’s land management need to be addressed before City Council executes a new five-year agreement. Board Member Sarah Faust said that, in addition to several outdoor boat racks encroaching into the trail area used by park patrons, she noticed containers of chemicals strewn about in the grass. She asked that the parks department require the Texas Rowing Center to properly store any chemicals. Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley told the board she would personally talk to the rowing center to ensure that the chemicals are safely stored, and that the boats located outside the boathouse belong to the University of Texas and the rowing center is working on finding a storage solution for them by the end of the year. With assurances that these two issues will be addressed, the parks board unanimously recommended that Council approve the contracts and concessions agreement with the rowing center.


Friday, June 26, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Travis County prohibits gatherings of more than 100 people

As cases of coronavirus surge around the state, County Judge Sam Biscoe issued an order Thursday prohibiting outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, except as permitted under Gov. Greg Abbott’s GA-26 order. The limitation on gathering size will remain in effect until July 10. The order also notes that people should not socialize in groups greater than 10 and should endeavor to wear facial coverings when in each other’s company. Religious services, child care, municipal and county licensing services, youth camps and recreational sports programs will not have an occupancy limit. Swimming pools, water parks, museums, libraries, zoos and rodeos are not subject to this gathering ban, but must operate at 50 percent capacity. A violation of this order may result in unspecified criminal punishment or a fine of up to $1,000.


Friday, June 26, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Garza advertising anti-Garza flyer

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who is running against Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh in the July 14 Democratic party runoff for Travis County Attorney, has battled criticism of her lack of legal experience and her votes in favor of CodeNEXT. Now a political action committee backed by pro-neighborhood activists like David King and Fred Lewis has sent out an attack piece highlighting not only Garza’s CodeNEXT votes, but votes she and other Council members made that later turned out to be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. The group, which calls itself Austin Communities First PAC, received contributions from Mike Lavigne, Brian Rodgers, Jim Duncan and Linda Bailey, according to a February filing with the Travis County Clerk’s Office. What is most unusual about this particular attack is that Garza took a picture of the flyer and posted it on her Facebook page. Of course, she defended herself, concluding, “Things are gonna get ugly, friends, and I could use your help fighting these attacks. Please donate to my campaign. Anything helps.” Garza also won The Austin Chronicle‘s dual endorsement along with Eiserloh Thursday, which was also celebrated, safely, on Facebook.

This whisper has been corrected.


Friday, June 26, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

City releases nursing home Covid-19 data

In measured good news, the city of Austin reported Thursday, “Nursing home testing shows low positivity rate for both residents and staff at facilities with no known outbreak.” Testing results from Travis County nursing homes that did not have outbreaks show low positive test rates among staff, and those rates are even lower for the homes’ residents. According to a news release from the city, “Testing results from Travis County nursing homes without ongoing Covid-19 transmission … show three new cases that were identified among residents for a positivity rate of .16 percent. At those same nursing homes, nine new cases were identified among staff members for a positivity rate of .31 percent.” The news is less good for facilities that were known to have Covid-19 outbreaks. Results from those three nursing homes show one had a 38 percent positivity rate while the other two had a positivity rate of about 11 percent for both staff and residents. The data comes after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered tests for all nursing homes in mid-May, and is the result of 5,641 tests administered at 33 facilities.


Friday, June 26, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

AISD wants your input on remote learning

Austin Independent School District is asking families to complete a survey to help inform how students will return to school in the fall. In a summer newsletter (para Summer Vision 2020 en español, visite el sitio web del Austin ISD), the district explained that in Texas Education Agency draft plans, both in-person and remote learning would count toward funding. That, and the quickly shifting landscape created by the pandemic, means that AISD is preparing a “hybrid” learning model alongside a 100 percent at-home learning model for Aug. 18. Given the choice families have, AISD hopes that the family survey can inform plans for the new school year. The newsletter notes, “We’re looking forward to seeing our students and staff return to learning safely; however, it is clear that our school days will not look the same as years past. Social distancing guidelines may result in classrooms of six to eight students per teacher. This means not all 81,000 students will be on our 127 campuses each day and students will learn remotely when they’re not physically at school. More information on in-person learning will be communicated as the district receives guidance from TEA.” For assistance with the survey, please email survey@austinisd.org.


Thursday, June 25, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Covid-19 cases tracked through faxes

Cases of Covid-19 continue to climb in Travis County. Austin’s interim medical authority, Dr. Mark Escott, told the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday that part of the difficulty in tracking that increase is the process being employed. Austin Public Health employees must sift through faxes from testing labs and enter the data into the system before they are able to contact the person to whom the data corresponds. Dr. Escott told commissioners that sometimes the team sorts through 1,000 faxes a day. He spent most of the day Sunday personally sorting through new documents to enter them into the system so that public health staffers can contact people who have tested positive and begin contact tracing. “I am stunned to hear that the way we are getting the results of tests on infections is on fax,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea, who likened this communication method to “getting this on stone tablets that are chiseled.” Dr. Escott acknowledged that this manual form of data entry is causing a backlog and taking staff seven to 10 days to enter the results into the system. That elongated timeline, he explained, makes contact tracing difficult and increases the chance of further spread. Shea asked for a list of labs that are sending testing data via fax in order to contact them and encourage digital filing. In fact, because of HIPAA regulations and difficulty in sharing information across compliant platforms, faxes continue to be used in the health care industry long after the technology has become obsolete in other sectors.


Thursday, June 25, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council on break, will meet next week

Though City Council is technically on “summer break,” we live in interesting times, so it isn’t a huge surprise that Council is now planning to meet next week. According to a post on the City Council Message Board, Council will meet virtually on June 29 at 1 p.m. to discuss coronavirus-related topics. Though the agenda has not yet been posted, Mayor Steve Adler proposed including:

  • Reports from Dr. Escott and Austin Public Health: what’s being done to deal with the rise in cases, hospital admissions, and infectivity we’re now seeing.
  • Information on recent modeling and what that tells us about future scenarios and timelines
  • As specifically requested by Mayor Pro Tem Garza, and to which I emphatically agree is key, our current strategies to deal with and mitigate and current and planned efforts to address the protections for and the disproportionate and increasing outbreak in vulnerable communities, especially the Black and the Latinx/Hispanic communities.
  • Reports on RISE and other Covid funding, including an assessment of possible budget increases for fighting the virus itself

Thursday, June 25, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Travis County sets new record for registered voters

Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant clearly relishes the other part of his job: voter registration. The coronavirus has made it more difficult to register new voters this spring; yet Travis County has still set a new record with 828,127 registered voters, Elfant said Wednesday. He noted that the county added about 3,000 additional voters between the March 3 primary and June 15, the deadline for those who want to vote in the July 14 Democratic and Republican runoff elections. Elfant is expecting another 60,000 Travis County residents to register before the October deadline in order to vote in the November election. Right now he said his voter registration office is experiencing “a brisk business, mostly by mail.” In the past, deputy voter registrars would register people to vote by talking to them in public places, such as outside grocery stores, and going door to door in neighborhoods. Now Elfant and his deputy registrars have had to think up new ways to help people register. Currently, the deputies are checking each library that is open to make sure they have voter registration cards. In the next week or so, Elfant anticipates rolling out a text-to-register program. The last time they did that they got a lot of requests, but only about 25 percent of those who got the voter registration cards by mail actually registered to vote, he said. However, after the election they were happy to find out that 85 percent of those who did register through the text program cast ballots. Travis County residents may also fill out a voter registration application online and print it out.


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