On the first weekend that Texas bars reopened after coronavirus-related shutdowns, complaints and social media posts indicated some Austin drinking spots had trouble following capacity limits and social distancing rules.
Despite backlash, including from Austin Mayor Steve Adler, state and city officials did not take punitive action against bar owners or patrons, instead using the weekend as a teaching opportunity.
Gov. Greg Abbott allowed bars to unlock their doors Friday at 25% capacity as part of the second phase of his plan to reopen the state’s economy. Abbott’s minimum standard health protocols checklist, issued along with his reopening order, includes provisions that guests should place drink orders while seated at a table or through online systems, and that groups must keep 6 feet between themselves and other parties. The 25% capacity limit did not apply to patios, but the governor said those areas should still operate with tables at least 6 feet apart.
If videos and photos posted on social media over the weekend were any indication, 6 feet of space was hard to find at some Austin bars.
Buford’s on West Sixth Street, which is owned by Austin nightlife impresario Bob Woody, was one of several bars that brought in Memorial Day weekend crowds large enough to grab Adler’s attention. The mayor on Sunday retweeted videos that he said were filmed at Buford’s and at Plaza de Toros R3 bar dance club in Southeast Austin, each depicting crowds of revelers.
These two videos are from Buford’s on 6th & Plaza De Toros R3. Heard these weren't the only two packed places.
Please maintain six feet distance and wear a face covering to give the Governor's reopening of the economy the best chance to succeed - and last. pic.twitter.com/iAaSbN3Nt6
pic.twitter.com/SVEvdYd8tV— Mayor Adler (@MayorAdler) May 24, 2020
“Heard these weren't the only two packed places,” Adler tweeted. “Please maintain six feet distance and wear a face covering to give the Governor’s reopening of the economy the best chance to succeed — and last.”
Last week, Woody said he would reopen all of his popular bars right away, including downtown hot spots Buford’s, Blind Pig Pub and Shakespeare’s Pub. He declined to comment Tuesday about the mayor’s tweet or the videos.
“My ask is the same for everybody in the city, businesses and/or patrons: If we want the reopening of the economy to work, then we’re going to have to show some discipline on social distancing and wearing face covers,” Adler told the American-Statesman on Tuesday. Crowding in public spaces can lead to more cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and that could overwhelm local hospitals, the mayor added.
“I think that people are getting confused messaging on whether or not it’s important to maintain social distancing and wear face masks,” Adler said. “I think that part of that confused message is what they’re hearing in Washington and the fact that the governor will only recommend it but not require it.”
Citizen complaints and social media posts expressing concern about crowds also reached the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which has the authority to suspend the license of any establishment if an immediate threat or danger to public safety is found.
Commission officials visited about 400 bars across the state over the Memorial Day weekend, including an unspecified number in Austin. The TABC did not take formal action against any of those businesses, said Chris Port, public information officer for the commission.
“What we did was basically educate them and let them know what would happen if they continued to potentially violate, and that actually solved the issues in all of the cases,” Porter said.
According to the TABC website, the commission will “monitor restaurants and bars throughout the state to ensure compliance.” Failure to follow protocols “may result in a 30-day license suspension for the first infraction and a 60-day suspension for a second infraction.”
“As long as the governor’s requirements are in place, TABC will take the lead in maintaining the guidelines in the executive order,” Porter said. “In the coming days, our agents will be following up on potential complaints generated through sources such as social media, law enforcement or code enforcement.”
The Austin Code Department, which enforces occupancy load and social distancing, received 128 service requests through the 311 system about social distancing and potential occupancy violations over the weekend, including complaints about Buford’s, Unbarlievable on Rainey Street, Pour Choices on East Sixth Street and Ski Shores on Barton Springs Road, according to city records.
The service requests spurred the city’s Public Assembly Code Enforcement, or PACE, team to contact owners and inform them of complaints, said Andy Tate, senior public information specialist for the city, in an email. PACE also told bars about health and safety recommendations to bring them into compliance through education and encouragement, he said.
PACE officials visited 19 local businesses over the holiday weekend, Tate said, but no citations were issued.
“The objective is to obtain voluntary compliance through education. If an action is flagrant to the health and safety of the patrons and staff, Austin code inspectors may file an affidavit on the manager or owner of the establishment who fails to correct the conditions,” Pace said.
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