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A 'brutal winter' ahead: Austin restaurateurs say new COVID recommendations will further deter business

When local officials recommended businesses limit their capacity beyond state requirements due to the current surge in COVID cases, restaurateur Eric Silverstein was discouraged.

Silverstein owns The Peached Tortilla on Burnet Road and Bar Peached on West Sixth Street, the latter of which was closed for more than two months before opening recently for outdoor-only dining.

Neither is close to the 75% capacity limit allowed under state orders. Instead, they've hovered around 40% in recent months. And Silverstein is still trying to get back to his pre-pandemic staffing levels.

So when city officials asked businesses to keep their capacity between 25% and 50% last week due to rising case counts, Silverstein worried that the message would further jeopardize his attempts.

"We're trying to run a business, and when the entire marketing campaign is sort of geared against you it's difficult," he said. "When the mayor and the city are like, 'Restaurants are dangerous,' it's going to affect your business."

A new phase

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott issued the new recommendations on Thursday, citing the increasing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Travis County and concerns about adequate ICU personnel.

Travis County also moved to Stage 4, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, which asks residents to avoid non-essential travel.

"We know this has been a hard time for our businesses, but we want to keep them open," Escott said. "And the best way to do that is to limit the risk that we have now and keep them functioning, keep them open and keep them productive."

Escott also asked Austinites to limit their exposure to others outside their household, such as by not eating inside at restaurants in large groups.

"It's okay for families, if you live in the (same) household to go to a restaurant and have a non-home-cooked meal," he said. "The pattern that we've been seeing over the past couple of months is that people are going out to restaurants with friends and with neighbors and with larger groups of people."

Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged the burdens the pandemic poses to local business owners—especially those in the hospitality sector, such as restaurants, hotels and music venues—and said federal funding is needed to help address them.

"Everybody should be reaching out right now to our delegations in Washington because that's where this kind of relief needs to come from," he said last week.

In the eight months since Congress passed the CARES Act, countless local businesses have closed.

One step forward, two steps back

The Stage 4 announcement came at a bad time for Sammy Lam, who opened Wanderlust Wine Co. in downtown Austin in June.

The first two months were tough, but as the curve flattened in August people felt more comfortable visiting the wine bar.

"August and September, we just started seeing this overall increase in business after having nothing—almost this point of no return," Lam said.

But the new recommendations threaten this progress.

The six-month deferment period for Wanderlust's debt payment ran out in October, and Lam was banking on continued business through the holiday period before the traditionally slow months of January and February, when people often resolve to drink less.

With the recent surge in new cases, however, Lam has seen a decline in foot traffic, which was already hard to come by as a new business in an area with a large population of homeless people.

"It's understandable, of course," he said of the officials' decisions. "But from a business standpoint, we're just doing everything we can to survive."

Silverstein echoed this feeling, saying that he "absolutely believes in the virus" but thinks that restaurants are getting an unfair rap.

"I'm paying for the sins of other people, and I think that's bullshit," he said.

Silverstein anticipates even fewer people will come out to eat at his restaurants with the new recommendations in place and encouraged Austinites to spend money at their local favorites any way they can.

"I think we're going to see a pretty brutal winter," he said.


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