It’s been more than eight months since the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Austin prompted a citywide stay-home order, along with most communities around the country and the world amid, the global pandemic. South by Southwest, a revenue source many restaurants counted on, was unceremoniously canceled, abruptly ending a 34-year streak.
Austin restaurant had to close their dining rooms. Some easily transitioned into to-go operations, which were allowed since restaurants were considered essential businesses, but many struggled to find footing in a changed environment. Furloughed workers flocked to unemployment, which was bolstered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) at the end of March. But that expanded benefit, worth $600 per week, expired at the beginning of August.
So much has happened in the Austin restaurant scene since the the stay home, work safe order was established in mid-March that we decided to chronicle the pandemic and its impact on the restaurant community in this comprehensive timeline.
As COVID-19 concerns mount, Austin scraps major annual events
January 20: A man in Washington state becomes the first American to test positive for the virus. The man, in his 30s, had recently returned from a trip to the region near Wuhan, China, where the virus was discovered.
February 29: After the first American dies in the Seattle area and others test positive, the state of Washington declares a state of emergency. Officials begin to consider canceling sports events and shuttering schools.
March 4: The first case of COVID-19 in Texas is a person in Fort Bend who had traveled out of the country.
March 6: For the first time in 34 years, South by Southwest is canceled by Austin city officials as the virus continues to spread across the world. The festival had a $355 million impact on the city in 2019, and the unexpected cancellation has a ripple effect on business across the city, but the service industry in particular.
March 10: Days later, organizers for the beef-centered event Live Fire announce that the April event will also be canceled. At that point, there are only 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas, and none in Austin.
Austin gets its first confirmed COVID-19 case; nonessential businesses are ordered closed
March 15: Austin Public Health (APH) releases emergency rules for restaurants and food trucks aimed at helping to limit the spread. Those rules include sanitizing surfaces every hour and ensuring employees and customers have access to hand sanitizer.
March 16: A man in his late 90s is the first person in Texas to die of the novel coronavirus. At the time, the state has fewer than 70 reported cases.
March 17: Following the leads of Dallas and Houston, Austin and Travis County close down restaurants and bars. But some, including Nickel City, Asia Market, Franklin Barbecue, and Via 313, have already made the decision to close or offer takeout services only. Many restaurants that were capable of switching to takeout models have already done so. And the city’s transportation department converts 100 parking spaces into temporary food pickup zones.
March 19: Texas Governor Greg Abbott orders all restaurants and bars closed as of midnight. Delivery and pickup are still allowed.
March 20: Abbott signs a waiver allowing for to-go booze (though initially only sealed liquor bottles and cocktail kits are permitted) with food sales to help restaurants keep going during the pandemic.
March 24: Aaron Franklin’s Hot Luck Festival, which was scheduled to happen for the fourth year, is postponed to 2021. It would have brought a lineup of nationally recognized chefs to Austin for Memorial Day Weekend.
March 24: Austin and Travis County issue a “stay home, work safe” order that shuts down all nonessential business and bans all public gatherings. The order recognizes restaurant takeout operations as essential, but dining rooms remain closed
March 27: A woman over 70 with “significant” underlying health conditions is the first person in Travis County to die of the novel coronavirus. Public health officials once again urge people with symptoms to stay home.
March 31: Abbott extends his order closing restaurants through the end of April. Violators risk a $1,000 fine.
The Austin restaurant industry adjusts to new normal
April 13: APH launches a hotline for business owners who have questions about issues and regulations regarding COVID-19. Restaurant owners have reported receiving conflicting information about best practices.
April 13: Austin’s ”stay home” order is extended into May. Nearly 800 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Travis County at this point.
April 17: The first major pandemic-related closure: All-hours diner staple Magnolia Cafe announces it will shutter its Lake Austin location permanently due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
April 20: Eighty-seven years after it opened as a gas station and beer bar, owners announce that Threadgill’s will close permanently due to the pandemic — a mere three days after it established a takeout operation and a major loss to the local live music scene.
Reopenings and reclosings
May 1: As part of a three-phase reopening plan, Abbott issues an executive order allowing restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity. The order supersedes Austin’s “stay home” order, which was scheduled to stay in effect until May 8. Texas is one of the first states to embark on reopening nonessential businesses and services, including restaurant dining rooms.
May 5: Abbott later clarifies that the 25 percent capacity limit does not apply to outdoor dining. Restaurants simply have to ensure that patrons maintain social distance by sitting at tables spaced six feet apart.
May 8: Austin extends its “stay home” order through the end of May, while allowing for reopened businesses under the state order. It also asks restaurants to keep logs of customers so that the city can contract trace in the event of an outbreak, but this wasn’t a requirement. Face masks are strongly encouraged by the city, but not required because of the governor’s order.
May 13: The City of Austin releases COVID-19 risk-based guidelines. Depending on which five stages Austin finds itself in and the risk category of the person in question, individuals should consider whether to avoid gatherings, avoid nonessential travel, and avoid dining or shopping. The city was placed in stage 3.
May 15: The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance announces a series of “soft opens” to prove to local and state leaders that the bar industry can reopen safely. The members promise to follow CDC guidelines and encourage social distancing.
May 22: Abbott declares that Texas bars will be able to reopen at 25 percent capacity, provided that they follow social-distancing requirements. Restaurants are able to expand to half-indoor capacities.
May 26: Texas mall food courts are allowed to reopen.
May 29: Austin’s “stay home” order is extended through the middle of June, but the move doesn’t affect the reopening of restaurant dining rooms.
May 30: Nonprofit Good Works Austin releases its own reopening agreement, which includes paid sick leave and requiring members to frequently change their air filters.
June 1: As Austin joins in on nationwide protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Austin restaurant owners and chefs stand in solidarity with protesters and Black Lives Matter. Five Austin restaurant owners chronicle their reasons for joining the protests against police brutality and anti-Black violence. When East Austin Gelato shop Gemelli has its door shattered during the nearby protests, owner Andrew Sabola says, “I care more about Black people not getting murdered by the police.” And though restaurants are already cash-strapped by this time, many come together to donate to Black organizers, protesters, Black-owned restaurants, and organizations supporting Black communities.
June 3: Gov. Greg Abbott’s Open Texas reopening plan quickly enters phase three, which means that Austin bars are allowed to reopen with 50 percent of their indoor capacity and restaurants are able to expand to 75 percent indoor capacity. Meanwhile, the city order still prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people.
Cases rise; and the face mask debacle
June 15: Despite the state order, Austin implores residents to stay at home and restaurants to limit their indoor capacity to 25 percent, as part of another extension of the “stay home” order through mid-August. The plea comes after a record high of 30 hospitalizations in a day. Austin and Travis County also went into Stage 4 of its risk-based guidelines. That means residents are supposed to avoid social gatherings with more than 10 people (or no more than two for high-risk residents), avoid nonessential travel, and only leave home to visit businesses that have been allowed to reopen by the state.
June 15: Acknowledging how much restaurants are struggling, Austin offers a permitting program that will allow businesses/restaurants to temporarily expand to public outdoor areas. Restaurants are told they can take over sidewalks, public parking spaces, streets, alleys, travel lanes, or private parking lots to create additional outdoor seating.
June 17: As a workaround to Abbott’s refusal to issue a statewide face mask order, Austin announces that businesses must require that customers and employees wear face masks.
June 23: The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) conducts a statewide audit of bars and restaurants, and four Austin bars found to have been flouting COVID-19 mitigation rules temporarily lose their liquor licences.
June 27: Abbott announces that Texas restaurants and bars can finally make and sell their own mixed drinks for pickup and delivery — provided they are sealed and sold with food.
June 29: As cases surge, Abbott suddenly announces that he will shutter bars again, just days after he said there was “no reason to be alarmed.” Restaurants are ordered to revert back to operating at 50 percent capacity.
July 2: Abbott finally issues an executive order requiring face masks be worn in public throughout the state of Texas.
July 14: The City of Austin extends its “stay home order,” with mask and social-distancing requirements through November.
July 17: TABC releases guidance regarding a temporary license modification that would allow businesses to remove part of their properties from their alcohol permits. That would mean breweries could begin selling their wares again and allow customers to tailgate or picnic in patios or beer gardens. Austin Beerworks and other places begin to make plans to modify permits and reopen.
July 21: Except not so fast. Five days later, TABC reverses course and says that the provision didn’t apply to alcohol-based businesses, like bars and breweries, that had been ordered closed by the governor. “TABC reversed course and basically said, ‘psych, you can’t do that,’” shares Austin Beerworks co-founder Adam DeBower.
July 23: Unsurprisingly by this point, the German festival Wurstfest, known for its German and Texan beer, food, and dancing, is canceled. The 60-year-old event has never been canceled before, even after a fire in 2019.
July 24: Breweries get some good news, finally. TABC revises its previous decision and announces that it will modify how its 51 percent designation is determined. The new system will exclude to-go sales, which will effectively allow taprooms to reopen.
July 24: Protesters at a rally organized by the Democratic Socialist of America’s Restaurant Organizing Project demand an extension of the federal expansion of unemployment insurance. The measure, a part of the CARES Act, was scheduled to expire in August and its expiration would leave many restaurant workers, and many other Austinites, in the lurch. It still hasn’t been renewed.
Where Austin stands going into winter
July 31: TABC announces that bars can apply for restaurant permitting based on food requirements. That allows bars that are able to prove that they sold less than 51 percent alcohol since April or that they will sell less than 51 percent in the future to reopen for business.
August 14: The Texas Tribune reports that Abbott would consider reopening bars if the positivity rate is below 10 percent.
August 17: Austin’s stay-at-home order is extended yet again — this time until December. People are still required to wear masks while indoors, but not while they are eating or drinking at a restaurant.
August 25: Another TABC amendment allows bars to apply for food and beverage certificates if they serve food from food trucks or outside vendors. To qualify, the bars have to set up a dedicated space for preparing and storing the food.
August 15: Austin deescalates to stage 3 of risk-based guidelines. But health officials urge the community to remain vigilant even though numbers are beginning to trend down.
September 1: The Restaurant Organizing Project organizes another rally demanding a return to the expanded unemployment benefits and shares with Eater its plans for a restaurant worker union.
September 12: The University of Texas Austin football team will play out the season, but the university announces the time-honored tailgating tradition is banned.
September 17: Abbott announces Texas restaurants will be allowed to expand to 75 percent dining capacity beginning September 21. Bars will remain closed, and businesses are still required to follow social-distancing guidelines — including mandatory masks.
October 14: Roughly a month later, Abbott reopens bars for on-site services at 50 percent indoor capacity and unlimited outdoor capacity, but he leaves it up to the respective county judges to actually allow bars in their districts to reopen. Travis County declines to allow bars to reopen, but many of its surrounding counties do so.