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Austin health official concerned about bars "masquerading as restaurants" to stay open amid COVID surge
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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Matthew McConaughey is reportedly weighing a run for Texas governor in 2022.
The Austin resident and Oscar winner has been "quietly making calls to influential people in Texas political circles, including a deep-pocketed moderate Republican and energy CEO" as he decides whether to run, according to Politico.
McConaughey said a gubernatorial run is "a true consideration" while on a March episode of Houston's "The Balanced Voice" podcast.
Although most political strategists doubt McConaughey's commitment and viability as a candidate, some are still intrigued by the possibility.
"I find it improbable, but it's not out of the question," Karl Rove, a top Republican strategist with a long history in Austin, told the political news site. He added that the big question is whether McConaughey would run as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.
Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist, told Politico he's surprised McConaughey isn't being taken more seriously. "Celebrity in this country counts for a lot," he said. "It's not like some C-list actor no one likes. He has an appeal."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott plans to run for a third term and remains popular among Republican voters, 77% of whom approve of his performance as of April, according to the Texas Politics Project.
Some strategists believe an independent McConaughey run would benefit Abbott. But a recent poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that McConaughey would beat Abbott, 45% to 33%, with 22% opting for someone else.
Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, mulled a McConaughey run in a recent opinion essay from the New York Times. "Texas may not be ready for a philosopher king as a candidate, much less governor," she wrote. "May the best man win, man."
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Some JuiceLand production facility workers and storefront employees are organizing to demand wage increases, better working conditions (including air conditioning in the warehouse) and pay transparency, among other asks. They are also calling on staff to strike and customers to boycott the Austin-based company until their demands are met.
JuiceLand responded on Saturday. "We are listening," the company wrote on their Instagram story. "JuiceLand crew now makes guaranteed $15 an hour or more companywide."
JuiceLand, which was founded in 2001 by Matt Shook and now has 35 locations in Austin, Houston and Dallas, acknowledged the rising cost of living across Texas and the added stress of the pandemic in an email to employees on Saturday, part of which @juicelandworkersrights shared on social media. "There's no denying that times are tough and financial security means more now than ever," the company wrote.
Organized JuiceLand workers rejected this proposal, according to a recent post on the @juicelandworkersrights Instagram account, and reiterated their demands.
"Cost of living in Austin is rising exponentially and will only continue to get worse with the tech boom," the post read. "$15 is barely a sustainable living."