Since March 2020, Austin restaurant and bar operators have maneuvered through a constantly changing and often contradictory set of rules and recommendations for how to operate under the city of Austin, Travis County, and state of Texas emergency orders.
The state of Texas has sought a less restrictive approach to slowing the spread, allowing restaurants to reopen indoor and outdoor dining areas. In Austin, there are restrictive suggestions known as the risk-based guidelines, but these local asks are just that: recommendations.
What does that mean in practice for restaurant and bar operators and diners in Austin?
Can you dine indoors?
State guidelines last updated for Travis County on January 30 allow restaurants to operate for dine-in service with up to 75 percent of their total indoor listed occupancy. Businesses are supposed to make sure tables are spaced six feet apart or, if six-feet-tall partitions are used, tables can be placed four feet apart. Dining tables are limited to 10 people or fewer. The city of Austin asks restaurants to take further precautions and limit indoor capacities to 25 to 50 percent instead.
Can you eat outdoors on the patio?
Yes, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order allows for restaurants to take advantage of their full outdoor capacities, while adhering to social distancing measures listed above. Austin has allowed restaurants to expand their outdoor dining areas through the Shop the Block permitting program.
What is required for diners?
Abbott requires that diners and employees wear a face covering “whenever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing.” The mask must cover both the mouth and the nose, and needs to be fitted against the face with no gaps. Diners are allowed to take off their masks while seated for eating and drinking purposes. Diners have to sanitize their hands when entering the restaurant, after each interaction with someone outside of their household group (i.e. a server), and after touching any surface (i.e. a door or tablet for payment).
What is required for employees?
Like diners, employees are required to wear facial coverings if they’re not able to maintain social distancing from people outside of their household groups. All high-touch surfaces (door knobs, payment equipment, etc.) and restrooms must be cleaned regularly.
Should you dine indoors?
Dining is still considered risky, because people are allowed to sit without their masks on for drinking and eating purposes; because COVID-19 is mainly contracted through airborne exposure, people are at greater risk when around people outside their household who also are not wearing masks. Likewise, indoor dining is particularly risky because it takes place in an enclosed space often with recirculated air (depending on the quality of the ventilation system), and the virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets. That increases the chances of spreading the virus to staffers (who are required to interact with customers) and other diners, especially with the emergence of new coronavirus variants that are more contagious.
What if I’m vaccinated?
While both available vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — are highly effective at preventing COVID-19, it’s not 100 percent at this point. Diners who have been vaccinated should still follow public health guidance from the CDC, and absolutely must still wear masks while dining out. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests COVID-19 vaccines may reduce transmission of the virus, but that does not mean people should let their guard down completely just yet. It also isn’t evident whether they prevent vaccinated individuals from contracting new mutations of the virus or passing it onto others.
Texas is also currently only vaccinating health care workers, people at long-term care facilities, people who are 65 years or older, and people who are 16 years or older with high-risk conditions or diseases. The state is not vaccinating service workers or grocery store workers at this point, unlike a few other states like New York.
At the same time, the state has bungled its vaccine distribution program, so much so that, currently, less than 12 percent of the state’s population has received the first dose. That backlog of vaccinations also faced another huge delay due to the disastrous winter storms in mid-February. The state currently predicts that the general public will be able to receive the vaccine starting in the spring.
This is all to say that most of the state hasn’t been vaccinated at this point, so it’s safer to conduct yourself as if you don’t have the vaccine and continue to social distance, wear masks, and wash and sanitize your hands.
What are the protocols if a case is identified at a restaurant?
If a restaurant employee is suspected of exhibiting the symptoms of or tests positive for COVID-19, they must not come into work. Those with confirmed cases are only allowed to come back into work if it is three days since they recovered from the fever and other symptoms have gotten better, and 10 days since the initial symptoms showed up.
If an employee comes in contact with someone (at work or outside of work) with confirmed case of COVID-19, that employee is required to quarantine at home for 14 days from their last interaction, before they’re able to return to work.
The Texas Restaurant Association recommends (but does not require) restaurants to notify employees that they might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and asks that restaurants with positive staffers deep-clean the entire space, but nothing officially requires the business to temporarily close. Restaurants are also not required to disclose to the public that a staffer has COVID-19.
Are bars allowed to be open in Austin?
Technically, no. Abbott gave Texas county judges the responsibility for deciding when to reopen bars, defined as businesses that make more than half of their sales from alcohol (which includes strip clubs and nightclubs). Travis County Judge Andy Brown has repeatedly declined to allow bars to reopen. When bars are allowed to reopen, operators will be limited to a 50 percent indoor occupancy limit and stop selling alcoholic beverages at 11 p.m.
But then why are bars open in Austin?
There’s one caveat to the above rule: Bars can reopen if they sell food from food trucks or another vendor or amp up their on-site food sales, thereby designating as restaurants. This is thanks to loopholes issued by the the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) over the summer.
Interim Medical Director and Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott continues to chide the scores of open bars that are not in compliance with the rules.
What rules should bars-operating-as-restaurants be following?
Bars that wish to stay open and conform to local regulations must still enforce the same rules as restaurants: groups must be social distanced; people have to wear masks when not seated at tables; and guests have to remain seated. Likewise, dancing and other close-contact activities are prohibited.
Can we still order cocktails to-go?
Yes, to-go drinks are still allowed, per Abbott’s emergency order. Mixed drinks have to be sealed, labeled as alcoholic beverages, and placed into bags that are zip-tied shut. To-go cocktails, wine, and beer have to be purchased with a food item (even a bag of chips). There’s reason to believe the practice could be here to stay.
Do bars-operating-as-restaurants face consequences for not following the rules?
Yes. TABC is tasked with enforcing capacity, social distancing, and face covering requirements. It can warn, cite, or even suspend the liquor license of the businesses in question.
Are mall food courts open?
Yes. Tables have to be placed six feet apart, and must be sanitized after each use.
Are food vendors at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport open?
Yes, on a limited basis. The airport continues to monitor passenger levels, but is allowing select vendors to open during limited hours. It has also implemented increased airflow and sanitation measures in the facility.
What about movie theaters with restaurant components or concessions, bowling alleys, arcades, bingo halls, and other recreation and entertainment venues?
Yes, while following the 75 percent indoor capacity limit, ensuring there is six feet of distance between groups, requiring masks for customers and employees, and regularly sanitizing high-touch areas.
Movie theaters must make sure that groups are seated with six feet of distance from other groups, and limit groups to 10 people. For theaters with row seating, there should be at least two empty seats between groups, and every other row should be kept empty. High-touch areas and seats must be cleaned after each movie. As for food and drinks, condiments must be requested; if customers have to write down their orders, the theater should let them take the pad and writing utensil with them. Customers are allowed to take off their masks while eating and drinking, but should keep them on otherwise.
Bowling alleys must implement six feet of distance between lanes and sanitize all equipment used by customers (i.e. bowling balls, shoes) after each customer.
Arcades must make sure that there is six feet of distance between games, limit individual games to a single player at a time, all interactive console are regularly cleaned after each customer use.
Do restaurants face consequences for not following the rules?
While the city’s focus is on education and voluntary compliance with these regulations, citizens can report non-compliant businesses to Austin Code, Fire, or Police through 311 via mobile app or phone. Repeat offenders face a maximum fine of $1,000 per offence and up to 180 days of jail time.
Restaurant workers who don’t feel safe can file anonymous complaints through Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or call the Austin-area office at 512-374-0271.