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Austin Diners Urged to Mask Up and Switch Back to Outdoor Dining Thanks to Delta Variant

The city escalated into Stage 5 of its risk-based guidelines, with new recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated diners

A person in a black mask and a dark gray hat is holding a brown bag through a pickup window
A customer grabs a pickup order at the takeout window of Little Brother on South Congress in March.
Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

Austin and Travis County escalated into Stage 5 of its coronavirus risk-based guidelines on August 5, with new mask recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated restaurant diners.

The new guidance recommends that vaccinated people wear masks when dining indoors, attending indoor and outdoor events, traveling, and shopping. Additionally, high-risk vaccinated people are being urged to wear a mask when dining outdoors and to refrain from indoor dining and other indoor gatherings.

For unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people, the recommendation is to refrain from any sort of indoor or outdoor dining and to stick to takeout or curbside dining and shopping,

The new guidance also encourages diners to frequent restaurants and bars that require masks and proof of vaccinations, especially for indoor dining. During the announcement press conference, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said that businesses — including restaurants — could decide whether they want to require proof of vaccinations from their customers. “We urge our patrons and customers to be vaccinated,” she said, “and businesses can make a business decision to require vaccinations of their patrons and members, and we would support those that do so.”

When Eater asked about whether this would be legally allowed under Texas state orders, a media contact for the city said, “We would advise restaurants to consult with their own lawyers to determine their ability to do this, however, we know that municipalities are not allowed to do this under the governor’s orders.”

Proving vaccination has become a requirement in other cities, such as in New York, where later this month, all diners will have to prove they are vaccinated to dine indoors.

Generally, Dr. Walkes recommended that businesses and restaurants should revert back to contactless and curbside services if possible. She also acknowledged that the Austin business community has gone through a lot in the past year, but that these requests are for the safety of the city.

“We know that there have been struggles in many businesses, and we know that many of these businesses are just getting back on their feet, and we want to keep our business community open and thriving,” she said at the press conference.

When asked whether vaccinated Austinites should dine indoors, Dr. Walkes said that they should assess the situation, including “whether or not the establishment is using the best practices regarding COVID mitigation with distancing and availability of hand sanitizer, whether the staff is wearing masks, whether the establishments may be inquiring about vaccination status.” She added that the least risky situation would be dining at a well-ventilated outdoor space while wearing a mask.

The county’s “stage” levels are based on the seven-day moving average (aka the daily average over the past week) numbers of hospitalizations, ICU patients, and patients on ventilators. The city entered Stages 3 and then 4 in mid-July; the last time Austin was in Stage 5 was in late December 2020.

As of August 5, the “seven-day moving average” numbers showed 78 new hospital admissions, 430 new cases, and 3,412 active cases. There were also 483 hospitalizations, 167 patients in the ICU, and 103 on ventilators, as of August 5. The Travis County positivity rate is 14.5 percent; statewide, it’s 11.50 percent.

These numbers represent a stark increase: Travis County’s seven-day moving average for new admissions increased over 600 percent, from 9 on July 4 to  67 on August 4. This surge is due to the extremely contagious delta variant, which is affecting mostly unvaccinated individuals who may experience hospitalization, long-term health issues, and death. This doesn’t mean that vaccinated people aren’t susceptible to catching the virus (they can still get it), but such so-called “breakthrough” cases tend to be less severe. 73.67 percent of the eligible Travis County population has been partially or fully vaccinated, as opposed to 62.58 percent of the eligible Texas population.

Despite the rapid increase in COVID-related cases and deaths amid the lower vaccination rates, on July 29, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated his stance on not issuing any sort of virus-related requirements through a new executive order. The order bluntly states there are no COVID safety measures in place for any Texas businesses — which includes restaurants. People in Texas regions with high positivity rates are just “encouraged” to social distance and wear masks, but not required to. Government agencies and companies that receive government funds and loans cannot require vaccinations or documentation of vaccinations, and there is a fine of up to $1,000 for any agency that fails to follow this order.