Travis County judge: Bars will not reopen, despite permission from governor to do so
Pedestrians walk down Sixth Street, passing bar Toulouse, which is closed. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe announced Oct. 14 that bars in the county would not reopen, despite permission from the governor to do so at 50% capacity. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Biscoe said in a statement that Travis County has seen an increase in hospitalizations, intensive care unit bed use and ventilator use in recent days.
"As such, I cannot in good conscience allow bars to reopen at 50% capacity at this time," Biscoe said in the statement. "The risk to our public health is too great, especially now that students of all ages have returned to the classroom."
Travis County remains at Stage 3 of coronavirus risk, according to Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin-Travis County interim health authority, who said in a memo that modeling from The University of Texas indicates a 66% chance "of a worsening pandemic locally over the next month."
"While it is important to identify avenues for our business community to reopen and thrive, we must continue to prioritize the health and safety of this community and our ability to ensure that our schools can successfully stay open for in-person learning," Escott wrote. "Therefore, it is my recommendation that bars and similar establishments be prohibited from reopening at this stage."
Abbott announced Oct. 7 that bars could open to 50% capacity if county judges opted into his plan. According to the guidelines Abbott announced, facial coverings must be worn in bars by both employees and customers when 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained.
"It's time to open them up," Abbott said in the Oct. 7 announcement. "If we continue to contain [COVID-19], then the openings, just like other businesses, should be able to expand in the near future."
In Hays County, Judge Ruben Becerra said his decision came after consultation with local officials, emergency management staff and health department staff.
"The majority of mayors and other elected officials were supportive but cautious," Becerra said in a release. "This is a public safety issue, and our goal is to always protect public safety,"
Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell said "it is time for all of our businesses to be open to serve our public" while following the governor's protocols in a statement.
"Our county residents have shown that they can be smart and protect themselves and others," Gravell said in the release.
Bars originally opened for five weeks in May and June but were forced to shut down again June 26 when coronavirus case numbers surged across the state. Beginning in August, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission outlined rules regarding how bars can reclassify as restaurants to reopen.
Bars such as Lavaca Street Bar—which has locations in South Austin, North Austin and downtown—took advantage of that opportunity to reclassify and reopen by adjusting their hours and menu to receive less than 51% of revenue from alcohol.
Max Moreland, partner and director of FBR Management, the group that runs Lavaca Street Bar, Lala's, Dumont's and other Austin bars, said the customer experience now is completely different.
"I understand safety first. We're being as safe as we can," Moreland told Community Impact Newspaper in August.