AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin-Travis County enforcement officials were readying citations for businesses who ignored local orders to restrict their dine-in operations on the New Year’s holiday. After the state’s high court blocked the enforcement local “curfew” order, there are new questions about the status of these pending citations.
On New Year’s Eve, Austin and Travis County’s orders went into effect — asking businesses to stop dine-in food and drinks after 10:30 p.m. through Sunday. Violators risked a fine of up to $1,000 if they continued serving past the deadline.
For Anthony Stevenson, co-owner of the South Austin music venue Come and Take it Live, the threat of a fine was enough to urge him to close his doors by 10:30 p.m.
“Had we been slapped with that $1,000 fine last night, we would have ended up losing money for the evening,” he said, noting that with only four hours of operation, his venue didn’t expect to make enough to offset any fines or fees.
Still, dozens of people filtered through bars and restaurants serving food and drink past the time when services were supposed to be required to become to-go only.
“All our tables were being utilized,” says Austin Talley, operations director of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse on 6th Street. They decided to stay open after Governor Greg Abbott voiced his opposition to Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s order.
“We knew no matter what it would yield probably a very favorable [outcome] through our judicial system,” Talley says. “And at most we’d get a small fine in comparison to the profits — or revenue we would lose, I should say, that helps out our staff, all our vendors and keeps us afloat for the months that we were closed.”
Talley expects to make five figures from staying open on New Year’s Eve. He says it’s much needed after investing about $50,000 in a new kitchen and heating system to become more COVID-19 compliant.
“To have a musician come up to me and tell me that he is grateful that I gave him a place to play music. Or he probably would’ve gone down a really dark road and contemplated about hurting himself… Then it’s all worth it to me. I’ll take a $10,000 fine,” Talley says.
Earlier on Friday — before the high court ruled against local orders — Mayor Adler told KXAN that the Governor and Attorney General were sending an inaccurate message to the public.
“The district court ruling is the law of the land for everyone, including me and the Governor until such time as that law, that court ruling is reversed, or suspended or stayed,” Mayor Adler told KXAN on Friday. “To suggest that businesses should stay open in violation of an order that has not been reversed or suspended is wrong.”
Citations and enforcement
The Travis County Fire Marshal’s Office told KXAN their officers visited more than a dozen establishments Thursday night. They said two were found violating both the curfew order, as well as a previous order — which includes a mask mandate and rules ensuring people are seated while eating and drinking.
Mayor Adler told KXAN as many as 20 “enforcement actions” were taken, and at the time, city officials said the citations were expected to be filed Monday.
A city spokesperson said they didn’t have a total number of citations expected yet, due to a multi-agency response. According to the Fire Marshal’s office, citations would have to be filed with the district attorney’s office on Monday before being sent to violators.
However, on Friday night, the Texas Supreme Court blocked the enforcement of Austin and Travis County’s order and sided with the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — calling into question the status of any citations pending. KXAN has reached back out to city enforcement officials for more details on whether the citations will be dropped or upheld, in light of the court order.
Earlier on Friday, officials said even if the Texas Supreme Court granted this emergency stay to Paxton, officers would still be out enforcing the previous mayoral order regarding COVID-19 safety precautions.
Police and City of Austin code enforcement officers were also conducting patrols.
City data revealed nearly 20 complaints were reported on New Year’s Eve to 311 — claiming businesses, restaurants and even some residences across the city were violating these COVID-19 guidelines.
The majority of the 311 complaints claimed mask, social distancing and capacity guidelines were being violated, but so far, no violations or citations were noted in the city data stemming these investigations.
Several of the case investigations were still “open” as of Friday night. The majority were “closed” with no violation found.
One complaint alleged violations happening inside an apartment complex common area, and several addresses noted in the 311 complaints appear to be private residences.
KXAN asked Mayor Adler if this data indicates Austinites were “taking the party home,” instead of heading health officials’ warnings to remain vigilant regarding the spread of the virus.
“There is always the concern that people will be gathering at places other than bars and at restaurants,” Mayor Adler said. “We are not going to be able to enforce our way to 100% compliance. Ultimately, this city is going to have to decide what it does, individual by individual.”
At the time, Mayor Adler said police and code enforcement would continue to check in through the weekend, despite the Governor and Attorney General’s ongoing fight against the order.
“I recognize and and know that the burden that the hotel, the restaurants and bars are taking is huge,” he said. “That’s why we should be doing everything we can when we can order out and do delivery. Tip generously. But ultimately, the first priority has to be trying to save as many lives as we can.”
Talley says both the fire marshal’s office and city code enforcement officers stopped by his establishment Thursday night. He’s not sure yet whether or not he’ll be fined but says he’s not necessarily committed to defying the mayor’s order.
“I do give the caveat that if I don’t have anybody in my place enjoying the environment at 10:30 pm then maybe we’ll close because I’m not going to take another citation potentially in the mail if I don’t need to,” he says.