AUSTIN (KXAN) — This past weekend, bars in Texas were given the green light by state government to reopen so long as they maintained certain requirements like operating at 25% of total listed capacity.

As bars opened their doors under the new rules which went into effect Friday, May 22, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission was out patrolling for compliance and reports that so far, TABC “has taken no formal action against any businesses in the state for violation of the 25% capacity order outlined in Governor Abbott’s executive order.”

The state has outlined rules for bars to reopen while protecting against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The state’s protocols tell bars to only provide service to people who are seated and that parties should stay six feet away from other parties at all times, including when waiting to be seated. Additionally, activities that encourage close human contact such as dancing are discouraged. The protocols ask bars or similar establishments to consider having all employees and contractors wear cloth face coverings over their nose and mouth, if available.

Chris Porter, a Public Information Officer for TABC, explained that the agency has met with bar owners, including some in Austin, to “address potential violations that were observed by TABC agents over the weekend.”

“In each case, the issues were resolved through education and informal warnings,” Porter said.

TABC said that its agents visited 400 businesses statewide over the weekend. The agency reported that some of these visits were done undercover and that these undercover visits “did not observe any violations of the governor’s orders.”

State orders earlier in the pandemic mandated that bars close unless those bars also had food available for pickup. The new rules on Friday marked a shift in options for socializing across Texas.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the rules related to bars will be enforced by TABC. If local officials receive a complaint about bars not following the rules, the TABC will investigate. TABC has the power to suspend a bar’s liquor license for 30 days on the first offense and 60 days for the second.

Reports in Austin

In Austin over the weekend, there were several reports of crowded bars. Austin Mayor Steve Adler highlighted two videos that appeared to show crowds at Austin establishments over the weekend.

“These two videos are from Buford’s on 6th & Plaza De Toros R3,” the mayor said in a Tweet. “Heard these weren’t the only two packed places. Please maintain six feet distance and wear a face covering to give the Governor’s reopening of the economy the best chance to succeed – and last.”

The video first appears to be from an Instagram story belonging to PLAZA De TOROS R3, an establishment located near Circuit of the Americas in far southeast Austin which identifies on Facebook as a dance and night club venue. The video pans across a large outdoor area with people packed shoulder-to-shoulder and music blaring. When KXAN called PLAZA De TOROS R3 Tuesday, the person who answered the phone said they had “no comment.”

TABC said that they don’t believe any of their employees visited Plaza De Toros over the weekend, but the agency will “examine the video to determine if a visit to the bar is necessary.”

The second video appears to be from an Instagram story from Austin’s Buford’s Backyard Beer Garden on West 6th Street. This video shows a packed bar with people close together and only a handful of people wearing masks. KXAN confirmed that this video was posted to Buford’s Instagram story over the weekend, but the video has since been removed. Bob Woody, who owns this bar and several other popular bars in Austin, said he had no comment.

The TABC said it did not meet with anyone at Buford’s this weekend, but that the agency is “examining the social media post to determine if follow-up action is necessary.”

A patron, who requested anonymity, at Buford’s on Saturday explained that when she visited the bar at around 4 p.m. it was not as crowded as it looked in the Instagram videos which appeared to be filmed at night.

“I would not have gone in if I walked up and saw that many people,” the woman said.

This woman said upon entering Buford’s, she expected the bar to be operating with table service only, but instead was told by staff that she needed to go to the bar to order drinks.

TABC explained that the state’s protocols say that at bars, orders should only be taken from customers who are seated at a table or by a web/ phone application. The agency said that these protocols mean that orders taken at the bar should only be from customers seated there and that walk-up ordering at bars should not be allowed. TABC added that any seating at bartops should comply with social distancing requirements.

When TABC is made aware of a potential violation posted on social media or through other means, the agency will open a complaint and conduct an investigation into the alleged incident.  

“The video is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building evidence of a possible violation,” said TABC Public Information Officer Chris Porter. “The video doesn’t always mean a violation occurred, but it can be an important tool during our investigative process.

While the state is charged with enforcing these guidelines for bars, reports of places being over capacity are being sent to local entities too.

Austin’s 3-1-1 system received 153 reports of concerns over social distancing/places being over capacity between May 22 at 12:00 a.m. and May 26 at 12:00 a.m. These reports make up around 41% of the COVID-19 related 3-1-1 calls during that period of time. For comparison, 3-1-1 calls about social distancing concerns and over-occupancy make up 27% of the total 3-1-1 service requests related to COVID-19 in Austin since March 4.

The total number of COVID-19 related service requests submitted to Austin’s 3-1-1 between March 4, 2020 and May 26, 2020. Data compiled by city of Austin.

Guidance for going to bars

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention still recommends avoiding gathering in groups of any kind where social distancing of at least 6 feet between people cannot be maintained. Updated guidelines from the CDC on going to bars and restaurants notes that the more a person interacts with other people and the longer they do so, the higher the risk of spreading COVID-19. These guidelines state that locations with on-site dining (both indoors and outdoors), that do not reduce capacity, and that do not space tables at least six feet apart have the highest risk of spread.

Recent analysis by medical experts interviewed by NPR also found going to a nightclub or any location with crowds and close-contact as “high risk.”