As the novel coronavirus pandemic carries on, case numbers continue to swell in Austin and across Texas, and the city remains in stage four of the Austin Public Health’s (APH) risk-based guidelines, many local restaurants have reopened for dine-in and/or takeout services.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the lowest rick activity when it comes to restaurants and bars are still limited takeout food services, through drive-thrus, pickups, curbside pickups, and deliveries. On-site outdoor dining is more risky, and on-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating is even more riskier. By far the riskiest activity is on-site dining with no reduced seating capacity and tables not spaced at least six feet apart.
Austin’s current “stay home, work safe” order (which runs through August 15) and the Texas executive orders allow restaurant to operate with 50 percent indoor capacities and full outdoor capacities while adhering to social distancing requirements. These include maintaining six feet of distance between groups and tables, limiting groups to ten people, and using disposable or digital menus, among others. Masks are also required for both employees and guests (except when seated at a table at said-restaurant and while actually eating and drinking, among other exceptions). Bars that make more than 51 percent of its sales through alcohol must still remain closed, per Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order.
It’s also important to note that if someone in a household is waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test or has already tested positive, all members of that household group are required to isolate unless otherwise told by APH. Employers are required to send potential sick employees who exhibit any related symptoms or who had close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus home.
Employees who have tested positive for the virus or who are suspected of having the virus are required to isolate at home. These individuals are only allowed to return to work after seeing improvements with their symptoms, three days since the date of their recovery, and ten days since their symptoms began. Likewise, employees who have had close contact with someone who has tested positive will also have to isolate for 14 days from their last interaction. This would relate to most restaurant staff.
So what should concerned people do if they encounter a restaurant not abiding by these novel coronavirus mitigation requirements?
Call 311 or file a complaint through the mobile app. That could bring the Austin Fire Department (AFD) or the Austin Code Department (ACD) directly to the business. AFD will check the Occupant Load Card or Certificate of Occupancy to determine whether the restaurant is in violation of capacity limits. This move is also what APH recommends.
Restaurant workers who feel unsafe can also file anonymous whistleblower complaints through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or call the Austin-area office at (512) 374-0271.
Both restaurant customers and workers can also report unsafe conditions through the Serving Justice (SJ) program at the Austin Community Law Center (ACLC). It’s not a substitute for alerting the local authorities of potentially illegal activity, but instead is an effort on the part of the organization to help organize local workers.
ACLC founder Brian McGiverin started SJ in 2019 as a way to organize restaurant workers against employer malfeasance. “It’s an industry that’s rife with violations of workers rights,” he told Eater.
The center has a team of volunteers that are monitoring the submissions through the Google form. When a worker submits a complaint, a volunteer will follow up with them to get a few pertinent details. Afterward, the volunteer will meet with the legal team and discuss the issue.
Then ACLC will send out letters to each of the offending restaurants with any information about the complainants. The letters let the recipients know that the organization received complaints about non-COVID-19-compliance and let them know that the restaurant will be reported to other regulatory authorities.
“Also, if any harm comes to any of their employees as a result of their failure to adhere to COVID-19,” McGiverin said, “[we will] let them know we’re in touch with them and will be advising them on how to pursue legal action.” So far, SJ has received 36 complaints.
Relatedly, there has been a rise in racially motivated hate crimes related to the pandemic. Anyone who experiences or witnesses a COVID-19-related hate crime can report it to the city through this online form.