APH threatens crackdown on bars-turned-restaurants not following COVID-19 orders

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s top doctor warned on Tuesday that Austin Public Health isn’t going to keep stopping at just warnings for bars-turned-restaurants that don’t comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott says as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, issues with bars reclassified as restaurants are trending in the wrong direction, as well.

“In a spot check on Saturday, compliance was 60%,” Escott said.

According to the City of Austin, multiple warnings were issued over the weekend. However, Escott says businesses that continue to violate state orders when it comes to safety measures like social distancing and mask wearing won’t get off as easily.

“If they do not clean things up, if they do not show a pattern of compliance, we will take further action, including closure,” he said. “We simply cannot tolerate bad behavior at a time when we are really struggling to keep businesses open.”

The City of Austin says the authority to fine or shut down businesses doesn’t just lie in the hands of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The city’s Environmental Health Services division, which does health inspections, can also revoke permits. The Fire Marshal can too, if there’s immediate danger or a business refuses to comply with orders.

Those who run Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse on West 6th Street say they’ve had a good experience with those enforcing, so far.

“They want to actually work with us,” said Austin Talley, the bar’s operations director. “They talk to us; we adjust immediately.”

Talley says he understands businesses have to do everything they can to comply in keeping people safe. At WTF Icehouse, large signs with COVID-19 restrictions are impossible to miss. Patrons are required to wear a mask when not in their seats. Patrons also are told to raise a flag at their tables to order, rather than ordering at the bar.

“I think if there’s a business shut down, there’s probably just some blatant disregard of the guidelines that are put forth,” Talley said.

However, he added he hopes to continue to see understanding and grace with those enforcing orders.

“I think there should be a lot of dialogue before the extreme of putting somebody out of business,” Talley said.

Between September and November, the TABC issued 13 written warnings and only one actual suspension to businesses classified as restaurants in Central Texas. A spokesman for the agency told KXAN it would continue to issue warnings if the violations are easy fixes, as long as it’s not repeatedly being called back to the same business.

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