All Texas bars are allowed to reopen for on-site service at 50 percent indoor capacity and with no outdoor limits, as allowed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott today, starting Wednesday, October 14. However, it is up to each Texas county judge to opt in to this reopening with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
For Austin, this means that Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe would have to agree to bars reopening in the area. The judge issued a statement that he will figure out exactly “what authority has finally been returned to local governments,” due to Gov. Abbott’s order before October 14. He will also work with the Austin-Travis County Health Authority to figure out the “safest route to ensuring a healthy population and economy.”
For Texas counties that do allow bars to reopen, guests will have to be seated at tables that are six feet apart, parties are limited to six people, and both guests and employees are required to wear masks when not seated or actually drinking and eating. Dance floors must remain closed. This reopening order applies to businesses that make more than half of their sales from alcoholic beverages, which includes bars, brewery taprooms, and winery and distillery tasting rooms. However, breweries, wineries, and distilleries are allowed to have customers standing at counters if they are “sampling products,” according to the protocols.
Right now, the novel coronavirus positivity rate in Texas is 6.9 percent, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. While the average number of deaths due to the virus has decreased this week as compared to last week, the number of cases and hospitalizations have increased, as the Texas Tribune reports. There have been 16,230 deaths in the state due to the virus.
This announcement comes just after Abbott hinted that he was going to reopen bars again earlier this week on Twitter. In response to the tweet, Austin Mayor Steve Adler expressed worry about this move, as he told KXAN, because bars operate differently from restaurants. He argued that there should be strict measures put in place, i.e., table service, because “we shouldn’t have people congregating at a bar,” he says. “We shouldn’t have any dancing.” He continued to urge people to wear masks (a requirement in Austin through December) and maintain social distance.
As bars were closed, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission issued various allowances that made it possible for bars to reopen as restaurants by applying for food and beverage certificates. This could be done through partnering with a food truck, selling prepackaged foods, or expanding on-site kitchens, or by just excluding to-go sales from their permit calculations. The Texas Tribune reported that over 1,000 of the state’s 8,000 bars have reopened under this permit allowance. Likewise, restaurants and bars with mixed-beverage permits and on-site kitchens were allowed to sell to-go cocktails, which still continues.
This is the second time that Texas bars are allowed to reopen during the pandemic. After all nonessential businesses were ordered to shut down in March, including bars and restaurant dining rooms, Abbott began reopening those businesses in early May. Bars reopened starting in late May, first at 25 percent indoor capacity, which expanded to 50 percent in early June.
But then, as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spiked rapidly that month, Abbott ordered the shuttering of all bars in late June, while also rolling back restaurant dine-in capacities to 50 percent. He even said he regretted reopening bars at the time, telling El Paso-based news channel KVIA that, “If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the re-opening of bars,” especially after “seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting.”
In mid-September, Abbott allowed restaurants to expand their dining room capacities to 75 percent, based on a new metric where the hospitalizations in each Texas region have to remain less than 15 percent for a week. He specifically noted that he wasn’t going to allow bars to reopen at that time because the businesses are “nationally recognized as COVID spreading locations.”
Update, 4:42 p.m.: This article, published at 3:43 p.m., has been updated to include comments from Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe.