AUSTIN (KXAN) — KXAN has been asking the City of Austin for weeks how many total citations and warnings have been issued to people and businesses violating state and local COVID-19 orders since the pandemic began.
It’s been difficult data to nail down due to the variety of city departments who are out enforcing the rules and checking into complaints.
We still don’t have the full picture but have confirmed out of nearly 7,000 complaints reported to Austin 311, it appears there have been very few citations and “notices of violations” written for breaking face mask, social distancing and gathering rules.
A notice of violation is what the city calls a written warning. A citation is the most severe action which goes through the local court system and could result in a fine of up to $2,000.
Here are the numbers the city has provided so far, broken down by department:
- Austin Code Department: 2 citations
- Austin Police Department: 2 citations
- Austin Fire Department: at least 4 citations, at least 7 written warnings
When a 311 call comes in about someone not wearing a mask, too many people in one spot or a business open that shouldn’t be, who responds depends on the day, the time, the type of call and who’s available.
Austin Fire Marshal Tom Vocke said it could be the Austin Police Department, the Austin Fire Department, a city code enforcement officer or someone with development services, which handles spots like construction sites.
KXAN filed an open records request to get a list of warnings and citations from police, fire and code. The city sent copies of six written warnings, all issued by AFD.
“There’s significantly more notices of violations than that,” said Division Chief Tom Vocke, who serves as the Austin Fire Marshal. “There’s definitely more than six.”
While he doesn’t know the grand total since enforcement started in March, Vocke said last Saturday alone his team wrote two citations to the owners of two different downtown bars and issued a written warning to a club on 6th Street.
Missing from the records the city provided are the two citations AFD wrote the UT Austin fraternity Texas Rho earlier this month when they shut down their game day party.
What’s also confusing, when you go to the code department’s public complaint COVID-19 dashboard and look up the complaint calls to 311 about the party, the outcome says “no violation found.”
Austin Code says the dashboard only includes calls handled by Austin Code. Therefore, citizens who call in complaints to 311 may not have a way to find out the actual result if code didn’t handle it.
Vocke said as of right now, each department keeps up with their own calls and outcomes, so there’s no easy way for someone to find out what they’ve done collectively. He said this is all new territory, and the tracking system across departments is not that organized.
“Our 311 report shows what we did,” said Vocke, “These are not systems that existed prior to COVID.”
The six COVID-19 related warnings the city sent from AFD were issued to:
- Austin Roller Rink (8/2/20)
- The Blind Pig (8/20/20)
- Unbarlievable (8/30/20)
- Javelina Bar (9/12/20)
- Jack and Gingers (9/13/20)
- Buck Wild (9/14/20)
The violations found vary among each business but include no masks, lack of physical distancing and more than 10 people gathered or standing too close together.
KXAN reported on COVID-19 complaints at the Austin Roller Rink on Aug. 11. At the time, the code department told KXAN despite 15 COVID-related complaints officers found no issues at the rink. There was no mention from the code department or Austin Public Health that AFD had in fact found problems.
We now know, nine days prior to our report AFD issued a written warning to the owner of the Austin Roller Rink, after discovering three different violations: no face masks, lack of social distancing and gathering rules. The owner told us at the time of the story, they’ve have no issues.
KXAN reached out to the owners of all six businesses listed above for more details about the issues.
Jack and Ginger’s owner Luis Botello said there were firefighters at the Irish pub checking things out, and saw a cocktail server pull her mask down to talk to a customer.
Botello was standing with the firefighters at the time, and saw it, too. He agreed it was a bad move, and told his entire staff if it happens again with another employee, that person will be fired. Botello said he has a great working relationship with AFD, and understands the job they’re doing to keep people safe.
“We’re happy to be open and we definitely take this seriously,” said Botello. “We try to go above and beyond and try to cover all our bases.”
Javelina Bar owner Jason Steward said they are working hard to implement the COVID-19 rules and guidelines to ensure a safe environment for guests and staff.
“We received a warning from AFD for a guest who had moved a table a few inches over,” said Steward. “This was immediately addressed and corrected.”
Robert Espinoza, owner of Unbarlievable on Rainey Street, told KXAN they’ve made changes based on the warning that noted a lack of social distancing and too many people gathering or standing together. He also said they’ve had multiple visits by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and Austin Public Health, and everything has been fine.
Buck Wild owner Philip Serna said the warning he received involved one person not wearing a mask.
“It was not a big issue, and we’ve been diligent about it,” said Serna.
Vocke says bars have been understanding about the enforcement, and AFD’s main goal has always been to educate people first before resorting to a citation. Citations are issued to people and businesses who show a blatant disregard for the orders, and those who have received multiple warnings.
AFD has noticed more people venturing out to downtown bars and clubs, and have adjusted their hours of enforcement some to keep businesses on their toes.
“More people being out is not necessarily a terrible thing if they’re all following the rules and being responsible,” said Vocke.