When It Comes To COVID-19, The ‘I-35 Divide’ Determines Who’s More At Risk

The highway divides much of Austin by race and socioeconomic status. And it’s the working class who might be risking more to do their jobs right now.

By Joy DiazApril 14, 2020 2:58 pm, ,

Editor’s note: Between the reporting and airing of this story, Austin Resource Recovery’s director, Ken Snipes, told the Texas Standard that masks are now provided for employees.

Interstate 35 is a vital transportation artery cutting across Texas, south to north. It stretches from Mexico, through Dallas and eventually ends up in Canada. The highway is essential for keeping goods flowing between the three largest countries in North America – everything from produce to medical equipment is trucked along it. And it’s especially important during the pandemic as people are more aware of the vulnerability of the supply chain.

But the highway is also a divider. It splits the population of Texas into two very uneven sectors. A large majority of Texans live east of I-35, says Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter.

“It’s 87% of our population,” he says.

And it creates local divisions, too. In Austin, I-35 divided the city by race, starting in the mid-20th century. And it wasn’t by accident.  Eliot Tretter, author of “Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism and the Knowledge Economy in Austin,” says I-35 became a “monument” that separated white Austin from non-white Austin – a means of segregation.

“Some people call [Austin] the ‘Dual City’ or the ‘Apartheid City,’” Tretter says.

That duality is especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly during the early morning. In west Austin at that time of day, there’s an atmosphere of peacefulness. The west side tends to be wealthier, and many people there work from home right now. So, at, say 5:30 a.m. or 6:00 a.m., many residents are still asleep. But in parts of east Austin, there’s a buzzy atmosphere as some residents head to work in jobs deemed essential by the state. But that buzziness can also make it feel like an alternate reality, as if the virus doesn’t exist.

Yessica manages La Hacienda market in east Austin; Andrew Roberson works for Austin’s waste management department and is on the front line with no protective gear; La Hacienda Market on the east side opens at 6:00 a.m.

Daniel Perez is an eastsider with an essential job. He starts work at 5:30 a.m., installing kitchen cabinets. People like Salvador and Erica are also ready to work early in the morning. They are unauthorized immigrants, so Texas Standard decided to only use their first names. Salvador is a roofer. Erica works for a house cleaning service.

Even the grocery stores in east Austin open early to service the constant stream of workers who stop by to grab a case of bottled water, or cleaning supplies or a bite to eat before heading to work.

Andrew Roberson works for the city of Austin’s waste management department, Austin Resource Recovery. As he climbs into a recycling truck, armed with his breakfast in one hand and an orange juice in the other, the protective gear that is ubiquitous in the city nowadays is, strangely, nowhere on his body.

“I’m on the front line every day and I haven’t got no pension for it. I’m not even given a mask. [And, yet], I touch everyone’s recycle and trash cans,” Roberson says.

Without a vaccine, the primary weapons against COVID-19 are staying home, washing hands and wearing masks. Roberson doesn’t have any of those protections.

The new coronavirus doesn’t discriminate; anyone can become infected. But some people, like Roberson, face more risk because of their race, job or socioeconomic status. It’s unclear why the city of Austin hasn’t provided him with a protective mask.

Tretter says these oversights could be explained by looking at how our culture treats these workers under regular circumstances. Things that we’ve accepted as “normal” risks in certain jobs, like environmental hazards, can be rationalized as “part of a course of how we build cities,” he says.

“From exposure, to pollution on highways, to lead paint, to where people live, to who has the right to live and die” – all of that has been absorbed into a sort of ethos that a resident might buy into while living in the city.

Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard says COVID-19 has revealed troubling attitudes about whose lives are valued and whose aren’t.

“It’s in our faces,” she says.

Howard’s district covers parts of east and west Austin – both sides of the “Dual City.” And the differences have become increasingly evident to her. The only way to change things, she says, is through political reform, and she hopes the pandemic will be a catalyst for that. She especially wants immigration reform to protect people who were vulnerable even before the pandemic.

“These are the people that are there making sure that [the] food supply chain is continuing to function. [These] people allow us to enjoy the lives that we have and to have food on our table,” Howard says.

Texas has called them “essential.” But some of them don’t feel that way. One person recently commented on social media that “instead of essential, we feel disposable.”

Note: Between reporting and airing of this story, Austin Resource Recovery’s director, Ken Snipes, told the Texas Standard that masks are now provided for employees.


Digital story edited by Caroline Covington.