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Austin Health Officials Urge Restaurants to Slash Indoor Dining Capacities

The city escalates into Stage 4 of its risk-based guidelines, recommending restaurants reduce indoor seating to 50 or 25 percent of total capacity

A masked barista handing a person to-go coffee
Austin restaurants are asked to reduce their indoor capacities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19
iStockphoto/Getty Images

Austin is escalating into Stage 4 of its risk-based guidelines today, in response to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Travis County. Open businesses, including restaurant dining rooms and bars, are asked to reduce their indoor capacity limits from 75 percent to 25 to 50 percent. This was announced during a press conference this morning with Austin Public Health (APH) and Austin officials.

Reducing indoor capacities helps “limit the risk that we have now,” says Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott, and helps keep these businesses open. He also notes that individuals from the same household can still safely dine at restaurants as long as they are staying within their pod. The problem, he says, lies with people who are dining at restaurants with others outside of their households and pods. “We’re not seeing random people infecting one another,” he says, “we’re seeing people who know one another infect one another.” He adds, “Those are the situations we need to avoid.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler took it a step further: “Don’t go to restaurants and eat inside as much as you may have done in the past,” he says, urging people to restrict their interactions and activities. “Just because you have the legal ability to do something does not mean right now that it’s the right thing for you or your family or the community.”

Adler also noted that the city would increase COVID-19 violation enforcement efforts regarding crowds and people not wearing masks, though what that will entail isn’t clear. Currently, there are fines associated with mask violations.

Dr. Escott is particularly concerned about “bars which are now masquerading as restaurants,” referring to bars with, as he describes, “very minimal food services” that have been allowed to reopen for on-site service through restaurant permitting. He notes that there have been “patterns of misbehavior and lack of attention to the guidelines from some of those establishments,” pointing to outdoor crowds at bars along Sixth Street. “I think it’s important that the bar industry work hard to sort out how to do this better,” he says, in order to keep everyone safe. “We know the nature of a bar is that people are drinking alcohol,” he continues, “people are often face to face. Those two things combined for this pandemic creates a scenario that is very dangerous, particularly in a time when cases are rapidly increasing.”

Travis County Judge Andy Brown reiterated that he doesn’t plan on opening bars until cases decrease.

Adler wants to be able to “bring as much support to businesses in our community. There are so many that are suffering so greatly, especially in the hospitality industry,” he says. According to him, the city has given as much as it can financially, and more relief is needed from the federal government. “This crisis has gone on for a long time, and we need Congress to act. We need the new CARES funding. We needed it four months ago.”

Officials also urged people to celebrate the holidays safely and avoid family/friend gatherings. The city issued a list of holiday-related safety guidelines earlier this week. Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests avoiding traveling and gathering with people outside of household groups for Thanksgiving.

Stage 4 asks Austinites to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people (that number is limited to two for high-risk people) and only frequent businesses that have been allowed to reopen under the governor’s orders. However, it is important to note that the guidelines are not orders, rather just strongly urged recommendations.

This stage escalation is based on newly determined thresholds informed by the reality of the availability of ICU beds and staffing issues, as healthcare workers are called to other areas of the state experiencing overwhelming outbreaks, like El Paso and Lubbock, and patient overflow from those regions are sent to Austin.

In Travis County, the current seven-day moving average of COVID-19-related hospital admissions is 32, and the region’s positivity rate is 5.3 percent. There are over 2,000 active cases right now with 204 hospitalizations. Overall, there have been more than 35,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in Travis County with 469 deaths. Texas is also the first state in the country to break the record of having one million COVID-19 cases.

Last week, APH extended its required emergency rules through December 31. These include mask requirements, limiting social groups to 10 people, requiring that restaurants have social distanced tables, and quarantining procedures for people potentially suspected of having the virus.

And then, on top of those emergency rules is the City of Austin’s “stay home, mask, and otherwise be safe” order (aka stay-home order), which also requires taking many of the same precautions, set to expire on December 15. These orders ask restaurants to implement contact tracking programs, in order to track and inform diners about possible positive cases. (Michigan actually posts outbreak information on a weekly basis, noting restaurant-related outbreaks.)

This isn’t the first time that Austin officials have requested that restaurants’ indoor dining capacities be reduced, either by the state government or by the businesses themselves. In June, Adler asked restaurants to reduce their indoor capacities to 25 percent during the summer surge. Recently, Dr. Escott has expressed his belief that restaurant dining should roll back to 50 percent.

All of these suggestions, rules, and orders make exceptions for businesses and activities allowed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders reopening businesses in the state. This includes restaurant dining rooms and bars in other counties under the approval of the respective judges.

Last week, Abbott said he wasn’t going to issue any sort of lockdown or limitations to mitigate the spread of the virus, despite the surge taking over the entire state.

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