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Travis County Judge Won’t Allow Bars to Reopen Despite Governor’s Orders

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe decided against reopening bars based on recommendations from the interim health authority

South Congress Hotel cocktail bar Watertrade, which is currently temporarily closed Sarah Frankie Linder/EATX

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe isn’t allowing bars to reopen in the area, after previously remaining silent about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order last week. The governor issued the mandate allowing bars to reopen in the state starting today, October 14, only if the local county judges agree to it and if the counties’ respective regions are below 15 percent.

“COVID-19 continues to be a threat to Travis County,” writes Biscoe in a statement. “I cannot in good conscience allow bars to reopen. The risk to our public health is too great, especially now that students of all ages have returned to the classroom.”

Almost every surrounding Austin-area county, from Williamson to Hays, has decided to allow bars to reopen starting today, but Judge Biscoe didn’t issue anything until this morning.

Judge Biscoe based his decision on the recommendation of Interim Health Authority-Travis County Dr. Mark Escott, who explicitly “prohibited” bars from being able to reopen in the county at this time. He cited the recent increasing number of hospitalizations, occupied ICU beds, and ventilators in the county. He noted that there’s a “66 percent chance of a worsening pandemic locally over the next month,” based on a COVID-19 modeling program from the University of Texas at Austin. Based on the same information, there is a potential increase in those numbers by early November. Likewise, the timing of flu season, which could act as a “second threat” to the city’s health care system if there is another surge of novel coronavirus cases, which would become more possible if bars are allowed to reopen.

Austin is still in stage 3 of its risk-based guidelines, which recommends that people avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people. Travis County’s current stay-at-home order, which includes wearing a mask and following social distancing requirements, runs through December 15.

Both Judge Biscoe and Dr. Escott will revisit the issue in 14 days to see how the novel coronavirus-related statistics are at that point and whether it’d be possible to safely allow bars to reopen.

All Texas businesses that make more than 51 percent of their sales from alcohol — bars, brewery taprooms, and winery/distillery tasting rooms — have been closed since late June. However, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission issued some loopholes over the summer, allowing these businesses to apply for restaurant permitting through increasing food sales or nixing to-go sales from their calculations, which would allow them to reopen for on-site consumption.

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