Austin’s curfew targeted at bars, not restaurants, due to TABC loophole

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An image posted on May 24, 2020 to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s Twitter account. TABC agents have been visiting bars and other TABC-licensed and permitted locations across the state as they reopen. Photo Courtesy TABC Twitter.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s new curfew will close restaurants and bars to dine-in service from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night over the upcoming holiday weekend. The curfew appears to be so narrow in scope, though, that it appears the city is targeting bars that the state has allowed to reopen as restaurants.

Dine-in service will still be allowed at restaurants for most of the day — from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. And, restaurants will be allowed to stay open overnight even after 10:30 p.m. for delivery, take-out, and drive-thru services.

Travis County still has not allowed bars to legally reopen during the pandemic. That means every bar you have seen reopen over the past few months has reopened as a restaurant.

Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin Public Health interim health authority, says most of these bars still operate as bars even though they are now technically restaurants. Escott has been pointedly critical of bars, calling them a “threat.” He told Travis County Commissioners on Dec. 22 that they needed to “crack down” on these bars.

“If we could close one thing, that one thing would be bars,” Escott said at the time.

A day later, Austin moved to Stage 5 in its risk-based guidelines.

On Monday, Escott said again, “we need [bars] to close. They’re putting public health at risk.”

Then Tuesday came the dine-in restrictions.

How TABC allowed bars to reopen as restaurants

On Aug. 21, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission changed its rules to make it easier for bars to reopen as restaurants.

Previously, bars had to have commercial-grade kitchens to be classified as a restaurant and a certain amount of space set aside for food preparation. The amendments to TABC Rule 33.5 allowed bars to sell any type of food and reopen. That includes pre-packaged food which needs no on-site preparation.

Bars were also allowed to partner with food trucks, something many did prior to the pandemic.

Katie McGranahan
Bartender Katie McGranahan pours beers at the Saint Arnold Brewing Company Friday, June 26, 2020, in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that he is shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%, in response to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Abbott critical of Austin curfew after once taking heat for bar shutdown himself

On June 26, amid a summer surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Abbott ordered all bars to shut down.

“If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting,” Abbott said at the time.

Then in September, with COVID-19 cases falling, Abbott outlined a new reopening plan but still kept bars closed. Bar owners and some in his own party were highly critical.

On Oct. 7, Abbott allowed bars to reopen at each county judge’s discretion. Travis County was the only county in the KXAN viewing area that has not yet chosen to reopen bars.

But, the TABC loophole has somewhat taken that decision-making process out of the hands of county judges.

With active COVID-19 cases as high now as they were in the summer, Austin acted with a three-day curfew targeting those bars.

Abbott was highly critical of the move, saying “this shutdown order by Austin isn’t allowed. Period.”

KXAN is working to get clarification from the state on why the governor and Texas attorney general specifically oppose Austin’s measures. Other counties, including El Paso and Bexar, instituted curfews earlier this year around the holidays.

Bar owners say they are taking steps to keep people safe while making a living

Bar owners though say they are doing everything they can to operate within the rules and crack down on safety violations.

Niles Patel, operator at The Venue ATX on 6th Street, said he’s invested thousands of dollars in additional tables, chairs and televisions so all of his customers can remain seated. They have also added extra security for enforcement and have safety guidelines for visitors.

“Everyone that walks in the door has to read these statements,” he said. “We are doing everything we can.”

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