AUSTIN (KXAN) — Heading into the holidays, Austin Public Health epidemiologists are becoming “increasingly concerned” about the spread of COVID-19 at bars, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said.
He told Travis County commissioners Tuesday they have had to “crack down” on bars legally operating as restaurants but still “functioning as bars.” Over the last few months, the Austin Fire Marshal and Code Enforcement teams have doled out citations and fines to more than two dozen Travis County bars and venues.
“Unfortunately, we have many bars that are not behaving well and are contributing to these cases,” he said, calling them a “threat.”
Escott went on to say he thinks the state should reevaluate the “loophole” that has allowed bars to continue breaking the rules.
“So, when asked if we need to close things, the answer is generally ‘no.’ We need to enforce the rules that are in place. We need to enforce the laws, the executive orders from the governor to control this increased outbreak and transmission,” Escott said. “So, if we could close one thing, that one thing would be bars.”
Escott explained an establishment must ignore several warnings before they are cited by Fire Marshals or Code Enforcement. He presented a list of the cited establishments to commissioners, highlighting several “repeat offenders.”
However, KXAN Investigators spoke with several listed bar owners who disputed the amount of citations presented in Commissioners Court.
“I was shocked, because that’s not the truth,” said Niles Patel, operator at The Venue ATX on 6th Street.
Patel said he has been made aware of two violations from the Austin Fire Marshal in the last year. One violation had nothing to do with coronavirus prevention, but rather the number of emergency exit doors open, he said. The only COVID-19 violation he knows about happened “early on” after they reopened and was resolved quickly.
“There was still confusion from the Fire Marshal’s office—and they even admitted it—that they were getting several different points of view on what they were supposed to enforce,” he explained. “Since then we’ve had no issues and, in fact, we were given high praise for going above and beyond what other places are doing and making sure our patrons are as safe as possible.”
Patel said he’s invested thousands of dollars in additional tables, chairs and televisions so all of his customers can remain seated during their time at The Venue. They have also hired additional security to patrol and ensure everyone is wearing masks properly. Plus, customers must agree to follow a list of safety guidelines when they enter the establishment.
“Everyone that walks in the door has to read these statements,” he said. “We are doing everything we can.”
A couple of other business owners told KXAN they also disputed the number of COVID-19 violations presented by Escott—or the reason behind them.
KXAN Investigators obtained a list of citations that has now been posted to APH’s website, showing a different set of data than was presented in Commissioner’s Court.
A spokesperson for APH said they were “looking into it” and planned to have an update on Wednesday about the discrepancies.
Patel said he feels the vast majority of the Austin service industry is working just as hard as his team to comply with the rules.
“There’s no assistance being provided,” he said. “It’s very disheartening to hear someone say, ‘We are going to close your business, and then not going to help you.'”