COVID-19 rules torpedo Austin Veterans Day Parade

AP Photo/David Goldman

The Austin Veterans Parade Foundation canceled the city’s parade honoring military veterans due to its inability to fulfill Austin’s COVID-19 rules. Last year the parade was canceled due to the pandemic. This year the hopes of reestablishing the 57-year tradition have been extinguished.

Governor Abbott blasted the city for COVID-19 rules on testing and social distancing requirements that he characterized as too “stringent.” The mayor is not commenting but the Austin Center for Events, which sets the permitting requirements for special events, said it “proactively” reached out over the summer to parade organizers. Organizers expect about 30,000 participants and attendees. The city rules include proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of entering an outdoor event in downtown Austin. According to the Austin Center for Events spokesperson, there is no requirement for proof of vaccination. The governor has banned local governments from requiring anyone get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“On Sept. 28, the organizers notified ACE that they decided to cancel the event citing the health requirements for an event with 30,000 attendees. At this time, Austin was in Stage 4 of the Risk Based Guidelines and the region had 25 ICU beds left to serve millions of Central Texans.” Austin’s now in a lower risk category, Stage 3.

The center, which includes representatives of various city health, public safety and cultural departments, said it meets with Austin Public Health at least monthly to consider revising the standards.

The latest version, dated Oct. 20, says that for outdoor events expected to draw a crowd exceeding 2,500 people, organizers must screen all attendees and make sure they provide proof of a negative test within the past three days and develop strategies for attendees to maintain at least six feet of social distancing.

The Austin Veterans Parade Foundation said it can’t meet that requirement. On its website, the announcement was made that the parade was canceled and it hopes to organize one next year.

“The restrictions required the Austin Veteran Parade Foundation to verify all participants and spectators to have either a current negative Covid test or be vaccinated,” the foundation said, incorrectly stating the immunization policy. “This is something that we could not do as we anticipated some 30,000 attendees to the parade.”

The foundation said the requirement for testing was too costly for it to handle and the number of people expected was too much for it to meet the requirement. The announcement on the website incorrectly references a requirement of vaccination.

Abbott weighed in with a suggestion of his own. He offered to host a veterans’ rally on the south steps of the state Capitol. “We are committed to ensuring that the traditions of Veterans Day are kept alive in the capital city,” Abbott said in a written statement.

Austin is frequently criticized by Abbott and conservatives as a liberal oasis in a mostly red state. The truth is that all of the major cities in Texas are under Democrat control. The coronavirus pandemic has produced many political battles since the state began to deal with it. Abbott standing up for a veterans parade is a no-brainer, especially during his bid for re-election. The foundation turned down his offer for a rally at the Capitol that Abbott offered yesterday. They’ve already made other plans.

It’s instead urging people to attend the city’s dedication of a Veterans Pocket Park at 2200 Veterans Drive, near the American Legion adjacent to Lady Bird Lake in west Austin.

Foundation board chairman Jim Darwin said the group “must respectfully decline” Abbott’s offer to hold a rally at the Capitol, as it’s already agreed to take part in the 9:30 a.m. Thursday dedication of the park.

Darwin said the foundation “determined that the unworkable Covid 19 rules imposed by the Austin Public Health Department were unattainable and too costly to deal with. So, the difficult and painful decision was made to cancel.”

There’s a little irony in this kerfuffle. Just nine days ago the city was boasting of being ranked by WalletHub “as the No. 2 best place for veterans among the nation’s 100 largest cities, as measured by “20 key indicators of livability, affordability and veteran-friendliness.”

Despite the low numbers of hospitalizations in Austin from COVID-19, city officials are slow-walking easing restrictions as the holiday season begins. Veteran groups are criticizing the decision and one group Wind Therapy Motorcycle Freedom Riders lump the decision on the veteran parade with the efforts to defund the police in Austin.

“First they turned their back on cops and now on veterans,” Luis Rodriguez, head of the Wind Therapy Motorcycle Freedom Riders, a military support group, tells Axios, referring to questions of funding and staffing of police.

“It’s a slap in the face to those who served. It’s for an open air parade. They allowed Formula 1 to go ahead, and that had five times the number of people as the Super Bowl. They did nothing to shut that down. They’re playing politics with the honor of veterans and those who have served this country,” Rodriguez added.

Of note: The F1 race was on private property, limiting the city’s ability to restrict the event.

In lieu of the official parade, Rodriguez’s group planned an informal event, walking up the sidewalks of Congress Avenue to the Capitol on Thursday morning.

It’s a shame that the city will lose out on the parade for a second year. People enjoy coming out to support and thank veterans for their service. Fortunately, there is the alternative with the park dedication. The politics of the pandemic are still with us. The testing requirement speaks to the city officials’ unwillingness to lessen their grip on COVID-19 rules for large events. University of Texas – Austin holds large sporting events like football games. While the parade that was to be held on November 11 was canceled, the college football game between the Texas Longhorns and the Kansas Jayhawks will take place on November 13. The expected attendance for that game is up to 90,000. The stadium holds 100,119 people.

The inconsistency in the rules falls between those under State jurisdiction and those that do not, according to Austin Center for Events.

“Events held on The University of Texas campus are under State jurisdiction and not permitted by the Austin Center for Events,” the ACE statement read. It falls under the ACE permits special events under the authority of Chapter 4-20 of the Special Events Ordinance.

“Events and venues which do not get a permit from ACE, or have an exemption in the Ordinance, are not subject to the same rules,” the release stated. “For example, exempted venues include Austin FC and some events at Circuit of Americas. A privately owned venue with a permanent use (not a temporary set-up, like a special event) also does not fall under these same rules.”

That’s been the problem all along. Inconsistency angers people. Are we to believe that the coronavirus knows when someone is at a football game and when that person is watching a parade? Both events are outdoors where the virus is less likely to spread. People have drawn their own conclusions at this point. Restricting people from events is past its prime if we are to live with this virus as we do others.