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When Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he would rescind business capacity limits and a statewide masking mandate on Texas Independence Day, he framed it as a step forward. "With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny," he said during a press conference at a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock.
But some local restaurants and bars, which have been caught in the regulatory crosshairs since Texas' first positive COVID test 364 days ago, have chosen to ignore Abbott's overture. Instead, they will continue to maintain pandemic precautions once the executive order takes effect next week, citing a desire to keep their staff and patrons safe.
"Our plan right now is to keep everything that we're doing," Iron Bear co-owner Bengie Beshear told Austonia. "I think a lot of customers don't really want us to do anything different from what we're doing."
The Sixth Street bar is not alone. On social media, lists of dozens of bars and restaurants choosing to continue to enforce COVID safe practices have circulated.
The Brewtorium, on Airport Boulevard, is one of many that will continue to maintain social distancing and enforce maskings. "There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we aren't there yet, so let's continue to do the things we know are working and get through this together," the business wrote on Instagram.
So too will East Austin's Southern Heights Brewing Co., which posted an update on the same social media site: "We are forever grateful to continue to pour beer for y'all, but we can't in good faith just hop in a time machine and act like it's 2019 just yet." Rainey Street food truck Bummer Burrito simply wrote: "FYI WE ARE STILL IN A BIG OL PANDI K THX."
Other businesses excoriated the governor for putting essential workers at risk. Joi Chavlier, owner of the local culinary incubator The Cook's Nook, described the order as "a real slap in the face to those of us who are essential workers" during a press conference Wednesday.
Justine's Brasserie, an East Austin restaurant, wrote in an Instagram post: "There are simply not enough expletives or indignant emojis to convey our anger and disappointment. It is already sickening that, unlike ALL other states (except Florida), Texas does NOT prioritize frontline and essential workers for vaccinations."
Although new confirmed COVID cases and related hospitalizations have fallen sharply in Travis County since their peak in January and the vaccine rollout is gaining momentum, local elected officials and public health experts say there is a possibility of a third surge if precautions are abandoned too quickly. Twelve weeks into the rollout, fewer than 7% of Travis County residents who are 16 or older are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
"We are not declaring victory on the pandemic," Travis County Judge Andy Brown said during a Wednesday morning press conference, citing some medical experts' opinion that herd immunity will require 80% of the population to be vaccinated. "This lifting of the mask order is way, way too soon."
The enforcement question
Despite these concerns, Abbott's executive order will override any local mandates. Although businesses will still be able to impose their own social distancing and masking requirements on their private property, they will no longer have state or local orders to appeal to while enforcing them, according to Randall Erben, an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
"Beginning next Wednesday, those table distance requirements are not mandated, the face covering requirement is not mandated, but if the restaurant or any business chooses to impose hygiene restrictions … then they can do so," he said. "And I'm guessing a lot of businesses are going to choose to."
Chavelier worries about what this choice means for her. "As a small business owner, it's not my role to be in mask enforcement," she said.
But Erben thinks the order makes things easier for businesses, even if they choose to ignore it. "When you agree with the lifting of the mask ban or not, it's going to be easier for a bar or restaurant to comply with the federal, state and local restrictions because they're back to where they were in February 2020 before we knew about the virus."
There is also the question of how the governor's announcement will impact bars, some of which remain closed in Travis County and whose reopening depends on a green light from the county judge—at least for now. "Travis County is still working with the county attorney and her office to determine how this order affects the county," spokesperson Hector Nieto told Austonia. (A state law loophole has allowed many to reopen by reclassifying as restaurants.)
At the Iron Bear, Beshear plans to follow the recommendations of local county officials, although he may reconsider if his competitors choose to open up 100% or forego masks. But he isn't concerned about the enforcement aspect. "We've had very little blowback from our mask mandate," he said, adding that if someone causes a problem he'll call the police and report him or her for trespassing.
Although many businesses are advertising their decision to maintain pandemic precautions, others may choose to rescind them starting next week.
Texas Craft Brewers Guild Executive Director Charles Vallhonrat said his organization is leaving it up to its members to decide their next steps and focusing instead on helping them recover from last month's winter storms. "It's really an individual brewery by brewery reaction," he said. "That's really important and obviously up to the brewery how they want to move forward."
Some local businesses have struggled to comply with state COVID rules over the course of the pandemic.
The Austin code department has received 9,609 complaints regarding COVID-19 compliance, with the bulk regarding social distancing and masking, according to a city dataset. The North Austin nightclub El Nocturno has been the subject of multiple complaints, as has the West Sixth Street bar Buford's, whose liquor permit was temporarily suspended by the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission last June. A spokesperson for the latter declined to comment on the business' reaction to the governor's orders.
Buford's neighbor Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse, which also had its liquor permit temporarily suspended for noncompliance with COVID rules, posted on Instagram celebrating the governor's announcement.
One commenter responded: "Can't wait for March 10th 👏👏👏👏"
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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Austin City Limits fest and iHeartRadio Fest are the latest festivals to announce the removal of rapper DaBaby, who has come under fire for homophobic comments made during a recent festival.
The 29-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, was dropped by Lollapalooza just hours before his set on Sunday, followed by the Governor's Ball in New York and Nevada's Day N Vegas after making unsolicited comments about men with HIV/AIDS at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Rolling Stone Magazine confirmed with iHeartRadio organizers that DaBaby will no longer perform.
DaBaby will no longer be performing at Austin City Limits Music Festival — lineup update coming soon. pic.twitter.com/jAYfdJFxJf
— ACL Festival (@aclfestival) August 3, 2021
There is no word on who he will be replaced with yet, though rumors on ACL's subreddit, r/aclfestival, are saying they expect Tyler, The Creator, who performed at Lollapalooza. Kirk will be replaced at Day N Vegas by rapper Roddy Ricch.
Kirk later backtracked his offensive statements on his Instagram story, but again faced criticism for not exactly apologizing.
After facing a second round of backlash for his Instagram statements, the rapper posted on Instagram, saying:
In addition to being dropped from the festivals, DaBaby has been denounced by fellow celebrities like Dua Lipa, Madonna and Elton John.
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