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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An Austin-based program manager for Apple Maps and one of two leaders for the #AppleToo activist movement said she has been fired after a suspension.
According to the New York Times, Janneke Parrish said she was put on suspension for several days while the company investigated her activities before she was fired by a human resources employee via phone call on Thursday.
Parrish was under investigation for allegedly leaking a recording of an Apple staff meeting to the media, which she said she didn't do.
The report said the company told Parrish, who is 30, that she was being fired for having deleted files off her company-issued phone and computer before handing them in for examination. Parrish said the files she deleted contained her personal and financial information.
Among the files she deleted were the Robinhood app, which she said was to keep Apple from seeing "how much money I lost investing in GameStop," the Pokemon Go app and screenshots of programming bugs she was fixing.
Parrish said she believes Apple was retaliating against her efforts in organizing #AppleToo, a group of employees working to expose the company's "culture of secrecy" that has been "faced disproportionately by our Black, Indigenous, and other colleagues from minoritized racial, gender and historically marginalized groups of people."
Parrish had been publishing weekly accounts of workplace problems that had been shared anonymously with her from other employees, though she did not verify employment on all of them. The accounts she received were in the hundreds, so Parrish said she was hopeful her termination would lead to some justice within the company.
Employees at tech giants have been more outspoken than usual in recent months—with former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen speaking out against her former employer—and Parrish said the company's desire to keep under wraps has eroded trust by discouraging employees to come forward with issues like harassment or wage disparity.
Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock commented on the matter: "We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters."
Additionally, the email detailing her termination, which was obtained by the New York Times, said Apple had determined that Parrish "engaged in conduct in violation of Apple policies including, but not limited to, interfering with an investigation by deleting files on your company provided equipment after being specifically instructed not to do so."
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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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