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'We just want consistent, clear leadership': Austin restaurant, bar owners frustrated over curfew

Matthew Odam
Austin 360
Dogwood co-owner Jason Carrier says both locations of his bar will be open for business as usual on New Year's Eve, despite threat of a fine from the city. [AMERICAN-STATESMAN FILE]

Austin Health officials Tuesday issued a three-day curfew for dine-in food and beverage services at restaurants and bars beginning on New Year's Eve.

Texas governor Greg Abbott followed the announcement with a Tweet saying that city officials could not make decisions that overrode his standing orders, though Austin mayor Steve Adler pushed back against that assertion Wednesday. Texas attorney general Ken Paxton joined the fray with a Tweet Wednesday, warning the Austin-Travis County curfew order is unlawful. 

The announcements left bar and restaurant owners to decide which officials to follow, with some deciding to carry on with business as usual and others making adjustments to their plans for what is usually one of the busiest nights of the year for the service industry. 

Not all restaurant/bar owners intend to follow the mayor’s order. Jason Carrier, co-owner of the Dogwood, which has locations on West Sixth Street and at Rock Rose at Domain Northside, said his business will stay open as planned and run the risk of a $1,000 fine from the city.

The two locations are operating under a reservations-only policy on New Year’s Eve and have booked reservations for about half of their tables. Some of those reservations are now in limbo, according to Carrier. 

The bar owner told the American-Statesman that the early closures will hurt service industry workers’ pocketbooks on one of the year’s most profitable nights, and may lead to people choosing to celebrate in groups at houses instead of in the controlled and regulated environments at establishments like his. 

“Where do you think our customers with reservations are going to go? Home to be alone? Or to a house gathering of friends?” Carrier said. “A politician is forcing people out of bars and restaurants, moving them out of spaces that account for 1.4% of COVID cases, into the most dangerous setting there is, social, in-home gatherings.”

Even restaurants that had planned to be emptied of guests by midnight have been disrupted by the city’s decision. 

Shawn Cirkiel, who operates four restaurants (Parkside, Olive & June, and two locations of Backspace pizzeria), says his restaurants received multiple cancellations shortly after the city announced the pending curfew Tuesday night. 

By making the announcement so close to one of the restaurant industry’s biggest nights of the year, Cirkiel said, city officials have made it hard for restaurants that had already purchased food for New Year’s Eve dinners to pivot to alternative plans. 

His frustrations with government officials echoed those he shared with the American-Statesman last week when city and county officials announced Stage 5 restrictions. 

“They could have done this at any point over the past week. They basically waited until last night, which is effectively today, which is the day before New Year’s Eve,” Cirkiel said. “We just want consistent clear leadership so we can figure out a way to be successful.”

Parkside Projects’ restaurants have reservations on the books until 9 p.m. Thursday, and Cirkiel says they still will honor those reservations and plan on not serving food or alcohol after 10:30 p.m., though they won’t kick patrons out of the restaurants. 

Cirkiel’s partner alerted him to a Tweet from Abbott that declared city officials could not override his orders. The contradictions between local and state officials only worked to muddy the waters, according to Cirkiel. 

“We all want to do our best. We’re very much in the interest of health and public safety, but it’s really hard for all of us to find ways to be supportive of the process with so much continual confusion at the city, state and federal levels,” Cirkiel said. “All of the incredible loss of life that has engulfed the city and country is a direct result of the broken response.”

All of Cirkiel’s restaurants are selling to-go offerings for the big night, but Cirkiel says sales will be down considerably from years' past. Parkside on East Sixth Street was already down to one-third of the business they would do on a normal year, and Cirkiel said the Tuesday night announcement would make that number go down further. 

Nickel City co-owner Travis Tober is another business owner who had already made considerable purchases for New Year’s Eve. His East Austin bar, which features food from the associated Delray food truck, had purchased 60 bottles of champagne for a midnight toast.

The bar had planned a socially distanced celebration with capacity limited to 25%, which is how they’ve been operating, but the city’s curfew changed all of that. Instead of a midnight champagne toast, Nickel City will now celebrate the New Year at 9 p.m. and offer champagne bottles for sale to go before closing at 10:30 p.m.

Tober said he’s frustrated that, as with South by Southwest, the decision to disrupt New Year’s Eve came at the last minute. The last-minute cancellation, Tober says, is just another example of the city not giving proper consideration to its independent restaurant and bar owners, while bending over backwards to offer incentives to multi-billon-dollar-companies that are flocking to Austin. 

“They wined and dined these guys when they came to town,” Tober said of city officials schmoozing big business. “Nobody took these guys out to Applebee’s to make these deals. We’re the ones who made Austin what it is and we’re getting thrown out with the bath water.”