AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Public Health officials worry about more than just large meal gatherings on Thanksgiving day. They’re also concerned about people going out to bars or clubs to celebrate the night before and into the weekend.
In a press conference on Wednesday, APH Director Stephanie Hayden said they have seen people “let their guard down” in social situations—from after-school activities for kids to dance clubs for adults.
“That’s where our contact tracing is showing the infections are happening,” she said.
After a statewide shutdown when the pandemic began, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott gave county judges the power to reopen bars to 50% capacity in areas with low hospitalizations earlier this year. While bars in Williamson and Hays County have reopened, Travis County has not made this move.
However, a portion of these establishments have begun serving food and requiring customers to remain seated at a table—reapplying for a different type of permit with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to operate as restaurants.
“We’ve got a lot of new rules to follow from last year, but we are good rule followers as long, as we know what they are,” said Bob Woody, board member for the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance.
He said they are enforcing these rules at all of the downtown Austin establishments he owns, despite disagreeing with many of them. He said they are working with TABC in order to stay open.
“We are getting more enforcement than anybody, and we’ve caused the least amount of trouble,” he said. “We’re in this right now, and it’s the rules we have to follow until we don’t.”
He went on to say, “It is frustrating to hear someone is not following them, because they are setting a bad example.”
Earlier this week, neighbors told KXAN they were concerned about COVID-19 compliance at an Austin nightclub, where city code inspectors and police responded to complaints, but no violations were found.
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KXAN Investigators have reported before Austin’s Code Enforcement Department currently works from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. After that, all service requests to 311 are referred to the police or fire departments until 7 a.m.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Hayden explained that’s why COVID-19 compliance teams are made up of Code Enforcement officers, health officials, as well as police officers and representatives from the Fire Marshal’s office.
Still, a spokesperson for Austin Emergency Management said, “Our teams are limited in certain ways in their COVID-19 enforcement response: they must observe a violation, and unless they are permitted to enter an establishment, they must be able to see the violation from public right-of-way.”
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Chris Porter, a spokesperson for TABC, said its agents try to respond to complaints as quickly as possible too, but they often must wait until the next “inspection period,” which could be days later.
Both local responders and state TABC agents said they prioritize calls based on the seriousness of the potential violation.
“If an agent gets a call from local law enforcement, gets a call about a situation that needs to be addressed now, we will absolutely respond to that as soon as we can,” Porter said.
Porter reported most Texas businesses are not violating the guidelines. Since the summer, he said the agency has conducted nearly 24,000 inspections and only found around 600 violations.
Porter said TABC agents will still be out conducting inspections over the holiday weekend.
“What our folks will be doing is ensuring they are able to comply with those rules,” he said, noting voluntary compliance from businesses and citizens was still the goal.
The Austin Emergency Management team agreed, saying in a statement, “A first COVID-19 compliance violation would result in a written warning and educational materials being shared to help an individual or business understand what rules and orders they need to be following. Subsequent violations would result in a citation.”
Both local and state officials said the consequences will remain consistent, and no harsher penalties will be imposed on violators during holiday enforcement.
Even under the current circumstances, Woody expects a busy end of the week and weekend in downtown Austin, thanks in part to the Texas Longhorn’s football game.
“We may wind up with longer lines because we can only handle so many people,” he said.
Still, he trusts the community will continue to “do a good job.”
“We’ve managed it well,” Woody said.