New American restaurant Launderette and its sibling spot Fresa’s had briefly been requiring proof of at least partial vaccination to dine inside the businesses since Monday, August 9, in spite of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s blanket order banning any sort of coronavirus safety measures throughout the state.
This is all happening as the delta variant of the coronavirus rampages through Texas, which has prompted Austin officials to escalate the city’s safety directives into the highest level of safety restriction recommendations in order to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus on August 5. During the press conference announcing the guidance, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes asked businesses to require customers to show proof of vaccination in order to patronize their businesses. A media contact for the city acknowledged that they also advised restaurants to talk to their lawyers to make sure they’re able to require that policy.
Four days later, Launderette and Fresa’s became the first two restaurants in the city to require proof of at least partial vaccination in order to dine indoors. Guests at the restaurants would also have to wear masks when not seated at tables. The two rules didn’t apply to guests on the patio. Eater reached out to the team behind the restaurants — co-owners chef Rene Ortiz, pastry chef Laura Sawicki, Margaret Vera, and Tracy Overath — for further comment, but they declined.
Just a couple of days later, the restaurant team was informed by the TABC that they were not allowed to require vaccination proof because doing so went against the Senate bill that passed in June, which states:
A business in this state may not require a customer to provide any documentation certifying the customer’s COVID-19 vaccination or post-transmission recovery on entry to, to gain access to, or to receive service from the business.
To ensure Texas businesses follow that rule, “each appropriate state agency” — in Launderette and Fresa’s case, the TABC — “will ensure businesses in this state comply,” according to the bill. These agencies can “require compliance [...] as a condition for a license, permit, or other state authorization necessary for conducting business in this state.” That means the TABC could pull liquor licenses for restaurants and bars that attempt to require proof of vaccinations in order to dine or drink at their establishments.
A representative for the TABC told Eater that, “while the agency has not taken formal action against any businesses to date, we have requested to meet with representatives of businesses where potential noncompliance could be taking place.” They added: “Our goal is to educate and inform, rather than penalize, these businesses. TABC will continue to coordinate with business owners and trade groups across the state to ensure the alcoholic beverage industry is fully aware of the new requirements.” This policy was reiterated on TACB’s website on August 11.
That same rep reached out to clarify that the agency doesn’t characterize their conversations with the Launderette/Fresa’s team as a threat: “TABC did not threaten to pull any businesses’ license in relation to SB968. Instead, we worked with the businesses to ensure they were aware of the requirements. Both agreed that compliance was the best path forward.”
The person noted that pulling licenses or permits is considered “a last-resort measure that only comes after a pattern of repeat noncompliance, and only after a business has had the opportunity to present its case before an administrative judge.”
For now, guests don’t have to show proof of COVID-19 vaccines in order to dine at Launderette and Fresa’s, but the two restaurants are still requiring masks for guests who dine indoors.
While people have to still wear masks in order to dine inside Launderette and Fresa’s, they can remove them while seated at tables. Overall, indoor dining is generally riskier when it comes to spreading the virus. Eating and drinking require people to take off their masks anyway, which creates a higher chance that people may be potentially expelling the virus in a shared space while breathing and talking. For the restaurant teams at both establishments, this is a cause for concern. Both Launderette and Fresa’s indoor spaces are not too big, which means people are more likely to be in closer proximity to others.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler weighed in on TABC’s actions on Twitter, asking, “So now a private business can’t protect its employees and customers?”
Pushback to vaccination requirements isn’t new. Across the country, restaurant owners who required proof of vaccinations have faced blitzes of negative social media comments, emails, phone calls, and even one-star Yelp reviews from people who opposed vaccinations — regardless of whether or not the commenters had even eaten at their restaurant.
Many local restaurants and bars are still requiring masks and/or closing indoor dining spaces to help mitigate the spread of the virus so as to not further burden the city’s already overwhelmed hospital systems.
This morphing COVID crisis is precarious, and the situation changes hour by hour, putting public health in danger. Since the city of Austin cannot issue anything stronger than recommendations when it comes to businesses’ safety practices, restaurant owners and workers are implementing what requirements they can while hoping that individual customers will act in good faith, keeping everyone safe.
Update, 4:08 p.m.: This article, originally published at 3:14 p.m., has been updated to include further comment from the TABC representative.