New orders urge Austin businesses to self-impose stricter capacity limits than allowed by state

Texas Chili Parlor welcomed customers into its dining room May 1. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas Chili Parlor welcomed customers into its dining room May 1. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Texas Chili Parlor welcomed customers into its dining room May 1. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

As the pandemic reaffirms its grip on Austin and hospitalizations and new confirmed cases surge, local officials, trying to work around reopening orders from the governor, are placing a significant responsibility on open businesses to help curb further spread of the coronavirus.

Earlier this week, Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued an order requiring employees and customers of open businesses, in most cases, to wear face coverings. Business owners are responsible for ensuring everyone on their property complies. The order carries new teeth: a $1,000 fine, on the shoulders of the business owner, for failure to enforce the new face-covering policy. The order extends through Aug. 15.

Also packed into that order is a plea from local officials to business owners: self-impose tighter capacity limits than what the state currently allows.

“While the city of Austin is declared to be in a Stage 4 Alert ... all business establishments reopened by the Governor’s Orders ... are strongly encouraged to operate at a capacity less than otherwise permitted to make it more feasible for customers and staff to maintain proper social distancing within their establishment, or in a manner maximizing social distancing ... as much as possible,” the order reads

Austin entered Stage 4, the second-highest pandemic alert according to its risk-based guidelines, on June 15 after the seven-day rolling daily average of new hospitalizations eclipsed 20. As of June 24, the seven-day average was more than 39 new hospitalizations from the coronavirus per day.

On June 24, Adler tweeted that he fears the necessity of another future lockdown, saying the only safeguard was “community will.”

“If we continue on our current trajectory, my fear is that we may face a decision to shut down again in the next 2-4 weeks,” Adler wrote on Twitter. “We have to see where the community will is to stay home, mask and otherwise be safe.”

According to his order, Adler hopes there is will among business owners to self-impose tighter restrictions than legally required. Currently, restaurants can open up indoor dining rooms to 75% capacity; bars, movie theaters, gyms, offices and most other commercial uses can open indoor facilities to 50% capacity, according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening orders. Outdoor establishments do not have capacity limits. All establishments are ordered by the state to enforce social distancing.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has already suspended permits for four Austin bars that failed to abide by the current capacity and social distancing restrictions. Buford’s Beer Garden, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Unbarlievable and Soho Lounge, all located on Austin’s West Sixth Street stretch, earned 30-day liquor license permit suspensions earlier this week.

Other establishments in Austin say they are already self-imposing stricter limits on capacity. Restaurants Juniper on East Cesar Chavez Street and Uncle Nicky’s in Hyde Park are self-imposing a 25% capacity restriction, according to Michael Covey, a managing partner at both restaurants. Despite being legally allowed to open at 75% capacity, Covey said his 25% limit is to maintain consistency with staff and customers.

"What we don't want is a yo-yo effect," Covey said of the possibility of the state reinstating tighter occupancy limits as cases continue to rise. "Not only is it tough logistics-wise, it's tough mentally and emotionally for our staff and our customers."

Taco Flats owner Simon Madera, said he has opened the outdoor patio at two of the restaurant’s locations—in Clarksville and East Sixth Street. The Burnet Road location has opened up seating in the parking lot and is allowing 20%-25% capacity inside the brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“We’ve come this far,” said Madera, who implemented a mandatory mask policy before the city required it. “Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. My guys are outside wearing masks. It’s hot as [expletive] but they’re trying to keep the virus contained.”

Madera, who said each work week has been “80-100 hours of navigation,” said opening up more of the inside of his restaurant could give his bottom line a significant boost, but he said “it’s not worth the risk.”

Eileen Bristol, owner of the Sahara Lounge in East Austin, had also self-imposed a mandatory mask policy at her bar/music venue before the city required it this week.

“The whole idea is to slow down the spread of the virus so the hospitals are not overwhelmed,” Bristol said. “I’m not in favor of trying to randomly spread the virus.”

The Sahara Lounge’s indoor space, which opened June 3, can legally open to 50% capacity, but Bristol said it’s been contained to less than 50% because the tables need to be spread out 6 feet apart, and space inside is limited. Over the three weekends the bar has been open, Bristol has seen fewer and fewer customers, giving Bristol the sense that people are still more likely to stay home than go out. She said if lawmakers tighten capacity restrictions back down to 25% or lower, she said it likely will not be worth it to stay open.

“I just feel fortunate that we’re not in a downtown where rents are incredible,” Bristol said.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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