Effort to reopen society pushed to limit in Austin over Memorial Day weekend

Austinites walk, run and bike on the Pfluger Bridge on a warm late spring afternoon. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austinites walk, run and bike on the Pfluger Bridge on a warm late spring afternoon. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austinites walk, run and bike on the Pfluger Bridge on a warm late spring afternoon. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

When Community Impact Newspaper first reached out to C.K. Chin on Tuesday, May, 26, the ownership partner of Native Hostel couldn’t talk because he was about to receive a coronavirus test. Chin, like several bars owners across Texas and its capital, welcomed customers over Memorial Day weekend for the first time since mid-March.

“I never thought I would be a front-line worker, but I’m going to start being in contact with a lot more people,” Chin said. “I have a deep, deep need to make sure that I keep my guests and my employees safe.”

Gov. Greg Abbott permitted bars to begin opening Friday, May 22, but with mandatory capacity restrictions—25% for indoor bars but no limits on outdoor spaces—and a menu of strongly recommended, though not mandatory, health protocols to follow, such as ensuring customers of separate parties remain 6 feet apart and that they are served at tables. The holiday weekend evidenced a range of interpretations from bar owners on Abbott’s permission to reopen.

Some bars remained closed over the weekend. Some, like Native Hostel, opened, even its patio, with extreme capacity restrictions. Videos posted on the social media accounts of establishments such as Buford’s Backyard Beer Garden on West Sixth Street showed packed patios and few if any face coverings or attempts at social distancing.

Chris Porter, a spokesperson for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, confirmed that Buford’s was under investigation for violations of the governor’s orders, which carries a minimum penalty of a 30-day suspension of a bar’s liquor license. Porter said although Abbott’s orders only mandate capacity limits for indoor bars, the TABC does have enforcement authority if they see any imminent threat’s to public health and safety. He said the crowds seen in the Buford’s video are “absolutely discouraged.”

Porter said the TABC investigated “dozens” of calls since May 22 for overcrowding at bars in Austin. He said “several” violations are under investigation, the results of which will be publicly available in the future.

Bob Woody, owner of Buford’s and several other bars along Austin’s famous Sixth Street stretch, did not return Community Impact Newspaper’s requests for comment. In April, Woody, with other members of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance, sent a letter to Abbott outlining rules bars would willingly adopt if allowed to open. The letter explicitly included:

  • [Bars] will install tables and chairs to eliminate open areas and encourage patrons to sit instead of stand to maintain social distancing

  • [Bars] will hire additional door staff to ensure that social distancing guidelines are met and that groups of patrons do not form.

  • All staff must wear masks during operating hours and encourage patrons to wear mask

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said crowds seen at Plaza Del Toros R3 in Southeast Austin and Buford’s gives Abbott’s strategy to reopen Texas a much smaller chance at succeeding.

“Everyone wants to reopen the economy, everyone,” Adler said. “My concern is that if people try to do that without social distancing, without wearing masks, we’ll see another spike forming.”

Chin said although he doesn’t support it, he empathizes with bar owners trying to navigate uncertain waters.

“As bar and restaurant owners, we’ve spent the last 20 years of our careers saying our goal is to fit as many people in as possible, serve and take care of everyone that wants to come in, that the key to success is volume,” Chin said. “To tell us suddenly that that’s no longer the case, I think it’s tough. Everyone has varying thresholds of concern and of what they’re willing to accept.”

Chin said his threshold is low because of his “personal experience” with the virus. He said his friend’s parent died from the virus and he’s known upwards of 20 people who have contracted the virus, many of which shared horror stories of their experience.

In the Red River Cultural District, music venues—even those with bars—remained closed over the weekend. Cody Cowan, executive director for the Red River Merchants Association, said most venues, although in dire straits, could not make it work financially. He said he’s unsure when venues will have an opportunity to reopen. He criticized the way some bar owners for how they handled Memorial Day weekend.

“Early indications from the weekend were alarming in how other businesses downtown were weighing safety against revenue,” Cowan said. “There is no monolithic attitude about what’s happening.”

Chin said everyone is learning as they go, but urged business owners to maintain that “We’re all in this together” mantra from the early stages of the coronavirus. He said patrons leave bars and go to grocery stores, offices and homes.

“If we all bend the rules just a little bit, at the end of the day, it’s like a game of telephone,” Chin said.