(Laura Figi/Austonia)

As local caseloads climb, Austin's top health official raised concerned about a recent trend of bars "masquerading as restaurants" to get around pandemic orders.

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority, said bars offering "very minimal food services" have attracted large crowds on Sixth Street, and that they have remained open under a "loophole."

Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott granted county judges the authority to reopen bars, under certain conditions, Travis County officials have not done so, citing the rising number of new COVID cases and related hospitalizations.

However, many local bars with on-site food service facilities, such as food trucks, have reclassified as restaurants, according to permit records from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Austonia reported in October that more than 200 bars had submitted paperwork proving they provided certain food services, allowing them to remain open at a reduced capacity.

This is concerning to Escott.

"We know the nature of a bar is that people are drinking alcohol," he said at a press conference on Thursday. "People are often face-to-face. Those two things combined for this pandemic creates a scenario that is very dangerous, particularly in a time when cases are rapidly increasing."

In Travis County, bars have only been allowed to reopen for a five-week period, from the end of the initial lockdown in mid-May through late June, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott imposed new statewide restrictions.

Although Escott acknowledged the burden of COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, he said the bar industry should "work hard to sort out how to do this better."

James S., a bartender and manager of a downtown bar who asked that the business not be named at the owner's request, said the bar did change its license to reclassify as a restaurant but that operations haven't changed much.

The bar, like many others around Austin, relies on food trucks to serve their grub.

"Licensed or not, it's the same because (food is) always available and we always close whenever the food trucks close regardless, so if there's no food available, we don't stay open," James said. "That was before everything had to be a restaurant as well."

James said the bar is strict to observe its sanitizing and mask policies and that he does not feel unsafe coming to work.

If bars had to shut down again, it would put a hole in his pocket.

"Being back open, we're trying to regain what we would have made, you know, especially being closed during South by Southwest," James said. "(Closing would) hurt my pocket a lot, because I'll have to go back to unemployment. Having to go back to that you know, that's not guaranteed. They tell you one thing, then you end up getting something else, and it's kind of hard to pay bills with."

Although COVID-19 cases are on the rise in many Texas jurisdictions, Abbott said earlier this week that another shut down is out of the question.

Bengie Beshear, co-owner of the Iron Bear, said in a September interview with Austonia that the business moved from West 8th Street to West 6th Street three weeks before the onset of COVID-19.

Until the pandemic arrived, business was booming. "Before COVID, on the weekends it was just constant, constant traffic," he said.

Once cases started occurring in Austin, Beshear said most customers complied with the new regulations, "but you still get the ones that come in late, they want to party and they want to, you know, act like it's still a bar and nothing's changed. Everything's changed and they have to remind themselves of that."

However, now that the bar has switched its license, Beshear has no intention of violating rules or operating his business in an unsafe way. He has seen bars forced to shut down in the area and said sustaining another shutdown would be devastating for the business.

"I'm on 6th Street, so my rent is sky high," Beshear said. "I've kind of drained all my options at this point. This is the kind of a last ditch thing with changing over to a restaurant. It'd be hard pressed to stay open much longer."

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