Looking back: Two months of Community Impact Newspaper's coronavirus coverage from March to May
An employee at Terry Black's BBQ in South Austin wears a protective face covering during the restaurant's first day open on May 1. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)
May 6 marked two months since Austin’s signature spring event, South by Southwest Conferences and Festival, was cancelled due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
Days after the cancellation notice, SXSW announced it had laid off one-third of its staff. It was a harbinger of things to come for the local economy. Between mid-March and mid-April, according to Texas Workforce Commission data, more than 12,000 Central Austin residents requested unemployment insurance benefits.
Meanwhile, from a public health perspective, officials say Austin and Travis County have done an effective job flattening the curve of cases by taking social distancing measures seriously.
However, there are some troubling signals. The county's top health official says most contracting the virus are working people. The public health dashboard shows communities of color have been affected at disproportionate levels, and the dean of the University of Texas Dell Medical School called nursing homes in the region "shockingly vulnerable" to the virus.
Community Impact Newspaper's Austin reporters have been covering the pandemic at a hyperlocal level over the course of the last two months. Here is a look back on the work chronicling the major moments in a pandemic that has changed life completely in the Austin community and countless others across the country.
Fallout from SXSW cancellation forces local businesses, laborers into fight for their futures
After SXSW was canceled March 6, small business operators reported losing anywhere between 20%-50% of their annual revenue due to the absence of the 10-day festival and the hundreds of thousands of visitors it brings to the area.
On the same day that the first coronavirus cases are confirmed in Austin and Travis County, Gov. Greg Abbott declares a state of disaster in Texas. Austin ISD cancels classes on the eve of spring break.
‘I’m worried about my staff’: Austin restaurants, bars prepare for unprecedented forced closure in response to coronavirus
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin Mayor ordered all restaurants to shut down dine-in service on March 17. Across the country, restaurants have been among the hardest hit businesses by the coronavirus economic fallout. According to a National Restaurant Association survey released April 20, more than 688,000 restaurant employees have been laid off in Texas since the pandemic began.
Austin and Travis County announced shelter-in-place orders dictating that individuals should remain at home unless out conducting essential activities—such as going to work in certain industries, grocery shopping or picking up prescriptions.
Central Texas farmers have overcome freezes, fires, summer droughts but have never dealt with a pandemic until now
Farmers who relied on restaurants for their produce, eggs and meat had to change their models quickly in order to adapt. Some found success with Community Supported Agriculture models, others continued traveling into Austin for Farmers' Markets, which remained open as an essential food source. "When we are in a better place again, we have to continue to buy local so the farms are always producing," said Eden East chef Sonya Coté.
With Central Texas facing a nursing shortage, new rules could help more nurses join the fight against the coronavirus
Nursing shortages are not a new problem. According to a report from the Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies, Central Texas is projected to face a shortage of 2,568 registered nurses by 2022, and in 2030 that deficit is projected to go up to 7,459 full-time equivalent positions. The coronavirus pandemic brought that need for nurses into clear focus, and Abbott announced measures intended to help more nurses join the workforce.
Abbott announced heightened statewide security measures, asking Texans to stay home unless they were out for essential services and activities.
Renting in a pandemic: How Austin tenants and landlords are proceeding amid economic fallout of coronavirus
Anxiety for many Austinites about making rent began after the cancelation of SXSW. Since the start of the pandemic, Austin has created a $15 million fund to help nonprofits assist residents with essentials such as rent, and $1.2 million for emergency rental assistance to be administered through a contract with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin.
Pregnancies won't stop in a pandemic, but growing precautions leave expecting mothers uncertain and anxious
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals, birthing centers and OB-GYN offices issued unprecedented restrictions and precautions, from limits on visitors to curbside prenatal appointments and check-ins via Zoom. Expectant mothers, forced to adjust any long-held expectations of the process and comply with rapidly evolving guidelines, said, although necessary, the changes are not easy.
Animal adoption, foster numbers up as Austin community comes together to support shelters
As Travis County residents were urged to begin staying indoors and working from home for the foreseeable future due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, thousands reached out to local animal shelters—including Austin Animal Center, Austin Pets Alive and the Austin Humane Society—to either adopt a pet or sign up as a future foster owner. Austin Pets Alive spokesperson Katera Berent said in early April, the Town Lake Animal Center was as empty as it had been in over 70 years.
Austin and Travis county announce the extension of their shelter-in-place orders through May 8.
AISD announced the postponement of in-person graduation ceremonies to August and cancelation of all proms.
Abbott announced a plan to reopen the Texas economy in stages along with a strike force to lead the effort. "We are now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us," Abbott said.
Central Texas businesses find challenges applying for federal assistance
Many local business owners had issues accessing a federal program designed to help small business owners pay their employees for eight weeks. "You know when you’re playing musical chairs and your heart’s racing and you don’t want to be the last one who’s not on the chair? That’s what this feels like,” said Antonelli's Cheese Shop co-owner John Antonelli.
Fearing increase in child abuse due to pandemic stressors, Austin-area foster organizations seek support
Many local foster advocates said close quarters and heightened stress put children at higher risk of abuse even as child abuse reporting is down statewide. Teachers and health care providers, some of the top reporters of child abuse, are largely cut off from face-to-face interactions with children, which experts said contributed to the decrease.
Abbott announces that retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls across Texas would be permitted to operate with limited occupancy starting May 1. He also confirms he will not extend the statewide stay-at-home order slated to expire April 30. On April 28, Austin Mayor Steve Adler says he is concerned the governor "may have gone too far."
Central Austin restaurant owners weigh difficult choices on whether they can safely re-open dining rooms
While some restaurant owners agreed with Adler that the plan was overreaching in interviews with Community Impact Newspaper, many appreciated the phased approach they would be allowed to take. "It's going to be complex, it's not as easy as just opening the doors," said Chris Cunningham, co-owner of bagel shop Nervous Charlie's.
‘We want people to decide for themselves’: Several Austin restaurants reopen dining rooms following coronavirus shutdown
Most Central Austin restaurant owners kept their dine-in areas closed on May 1, but some were ready to go with proper safety measures in place. Terry Black's BBQ owner Michael Black brought on 25 staff from barbecue pit workers to greeters and sanitizers on May 1 for the re-opening. “I hear people say, ‘Oh, you guys are money hungry,’ ... we’re not making any money. We’re just trying to break even,” Black said. “We’re trying to get our employees paid—they’ve got to get food on the table. It’s exciting to see our co-workers come back. Everyone is excited to be back."
Texas barbershops, salons to reopen May 8; gyms, nonessential manufacturers, office buildings to reopen May 18
Four days after restaurants, movie theaters, malls and other businesses were allowed to open to 25% of capacity, Abbott announced the next steps in the plan to open up the state's economy. Texas salons and barbershops will be allowed to reopen May 8 followed by gyms, nonessential manufacturers and businesses located in office buildings May 18,