Austin and Travis County bars and restaurants are required to close all dine-in services nightly from 10:30 p.m. through 6 a.m starting on New Year’s Eve, Thursday, December 31 through the morning of Sunday, January 6. The order was issued by the city and county on Tuesday evening.
This is presumably Austin’s way of halting New Year’s Eve parties as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continues to increase since Thanksgiving, reaching nearly as high as the summer surge throughout the state. Travis County’s current positivity rate is 12.7 percent. (The World Health Organization recommends a rate of less than 5 percent in order to keep businesses reopened.)
The new order specifically applies to “any venue serving food or drink from an on-site kitchen, food truck, or catering service.” While bars and restaurants will have to cancel all nightly on-site services, the businesses can still offer takeout, curbside, drive-thru, and delivery services during those hours.
Dr. Mark Escott, the Interim Health Authority and Public Health Medical Director, specifically expressed concerns over New Year’s Eve gatherings. In the press release regarding the order, he wrote that “we are now experiencing uncontrolled widespread community transmission of COVID-19, particularly in circumstances where masking and distancing are not possible, making bars and similar establishments extremely concerning over the holiday weekend.” People are allowed to take off their masks while seated at dining tables and while they are eating and drinking. During an unrelated press conference earlier this week, he also said that the city would be entering 2021 “in a state of emergency.”
The dining “curfew” had previously been recommended through the city’s Stage 5 status of the risk-based COVID-19 guidelines., issued just before Christmas. Those guidelines also asked businesses to close all dine-in services in favor of takeout and delivery, or, at least, shutter indoor dine-in services and slash outdoor capacities to 50 percent. Several Austin restaurants have taken it upon themselves and voluntarily close all dine-in services.
Violations of this order are considered criminal offenses, with fines no more than $1,000. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, during today’s press conference, that enforcement personnel will be out each evening to make sure businesses are following the orders and will issue citations if needed. The fines can’t exceed $1,000 because “the tools that we have to help facilitate and put into effect the advice and suggestions [of medical professionals] are what the tools are,” he says.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted last night that Austin/Travis County’s order “isn’t allowed” because of his executive order allowing businesses to reopen for services. Under the Texas order, restaurants are currently allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity indoor and full outdoor capacity, all while following social distancing regulations. Counties are allowed to choose whether or not bars can reopen in their areas, but Travis has continued to decline this option. However, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has allowed bars to more easily function as restaurants with new permitting loopholes, so many bars have reopened for on-site services anyway.
Adler said that the local curfew is “an operational restraint,” as he explained during this morning’s press conference, a “narrowly tailored order that focuses on operational changes to protect against the most dangerous situation,” so it doesn’t violate state orders. “We’re doing it in a way that our lawyers tell us is appropriate,” he adds.
The Texas Restaurant Association also takes issue with the Austin/Travis County orders. “Closing indoor dining will not prevent holiday celebrations,” notes the emailed press statement. “It will simply move them from highly regulated businesses into completely unregulated spaces.” The order doesn’t apply to house parties, but city and county orders currently limit all social gatherings to 10 people.
When asked about house parties during a press conference held this morning on Wednesday, December 30, Dr. Escott said that “We’re asking people to love your neighbors and to not hold those parties, which we know are dangerous.” He brought up potential liability issues if a party attendee were to get sick or die from COVID-19, too. “The message is very clear,” he continues. “it is dangerous and we’re at a time where we have to limit the risk as much as we can to avoid an overwhelming surge.”
“We’re never going to be able to enforce our way to compliance levels in this city that are really necessary to keep us safe,” says Adler. “That’s going to involve the individual choices that people make about where they go and they don’t go. and that businesses make about how they operate and what they do.”
“We need restaurants and bars to help with the public safety issue we have in the city,” says Adler, “but there’s also that economic issue.” He urges restaurants offer takeout and delivery during those overnight hours, and that people order food, drinks, drinks from these places during those hours, and overtip. “These people and businesses are taking a severe and significant financial hit for the greater good. We as a community can help mitigate that and we need to.”
“We know it’s hard,” says Dr. Escott, “I grew up in a family with a small business, a restaurant, I know it’s hard and I know you’re working on tight margins, but we’ve got to stay the course a little bit longer.”
“We’re talking about a small amount of time,” continues Dr. Escott, “but in that small amount of time, what we do, the decisions that we make, will have a lasting impact on hundreds or perhaps thousands of people in our community.”
Update, 11:13 am: This article, originally published at 9:14 a.m., has been updated to include comments and details from the city’s press conference.