SAN ANTONIO – Looking down from her hotel room, Kentucky All-American Rhyne Howard can see the River Walk bustling with life.
Hundreds of people — a high percentage not wearing masks — enjoying the restaurants, bars and shops along the San Antonio tourist attraction.
“It's packed, no one had masks on. It's kind of weird,” Howard said on an AP All-America chat Thursday night. “Little kids, babies, old people, no masks."
Such is life in Texas, where the governor has lifted his previous mask order and thrown open business “100 percent” if they so choose. Things are starting loosen up. And people are getting out, even as many businesses are still requiring customers to wear masks.
The Texas reopening has caused health experts to worry it could lead to more spread of the virus just as the as the U.S. picks up the pace of vaccinations. In Texas, 9.8% of its nearly 30 million residents have been fully vaccinated, according to state data reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the lowest rates in the nation.
State health officials say COVID-19 has killed nearly 46,200 in Texas over the past year, but the number of hospitalized patients, newly confirmed cases and testing positivity rate are at their lowest in months.
The NCAA isn't oblivious to the numbers, but its plans are focused on the teams in the tournament.
The governing body is taking rigid precautions to ensure that the teams stay in the controlled environment. There has been only one confirmed positive COVID-19 test among the traveling parties of the 64 teams in the first few days in San Antonio.
“We are regulated to our hotel can’t go off our hall, we can eat together, we can go practice together, otherwise you are in your room,” Lehigh coach Sue Troyan said. “You can’t go outside, you can’t walk around, can’t walk down the River Walk. Can’t do any of that ... It’s what you have to do in COVID time to try to run a tournament.”
The NCAA bought out seven hotels so that the teams would be protected from potential coronavirus issues. Teams have their own floors at the hotel and aren't even allowed to be in the same space as other schools. Elevator usage is regulated and entering and leaving the properties is controlled.
“We had to wait across the driveway while another team was exiting the hotel,” Howard said.
While the players and teams are well aware of what's going on outside their bubble-like environment, there is little signage around town promoting the women's NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA is using five different venues for the first round of the tournament, including the University of Texas in Austin. Six games will be played there on Sunday and Monday.
People have been out and about in Austin.
Crowds packed an Irish pub while a line to get in snaked more than 75 feet from the door on St. Patrick’s Day. Social media posts from a popular outdoor shopping and dining area showed large crowds eager to get out in sunny and breezy weather.
Many businesses are still requiring customers to wear masks, however, and the Texas campus was mostly quiet as its 50,000 students are on spring break. And the annual South by Southwest music, film and technology festival, which would normally bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Austin and central Texas, is online this year.
The NCAA just wants whatever happens outside of its control environment for teams remains outside of their bubble-like stay in Texas.
Jim Vertuno reported from Austin, Texas
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