'It would wipe them out': Many Austin restaurants can't afford the reduced capacity that the city wants
Two questions remain after Austin leaders, facing a surge in COVID-19 cases, asked restaurants and bars to reduce indoor capacity from 75% to 25%.
Can they? And will they?
For many in Austin, the answers are no and no.
"At this point, I don't have a single client that is going to close again or lower their capacity," said local attorney Kareem Hajjar, who represents hundreds of restaurants in Austin and statewide. "It would wipe them out."
Last weekend, Austin crossed the hospitalization threshold determined by health authorities and city officials to be the key indicator of a surge in coronavirus cases—and the trigger to pull back on reopening.
Among the first recommendations is Mayor Steve Adler's urge to dining establishments to reduce the number customers, although it cannot be mandated because state law allows them to operate at 75% capacity indoors, with no limits on outdoor areas.
Owners say they are doing everything they can—some even adopting health measures that go well beyond what local guidelines suggest—but that limiting customers would spell disaster.
North Loop restaurant Foreign & Domestic is operating at just below 50% capacity, mainly because the 1,500 square-foot eatery doesn't have room for more, given the requirement that tables be placed six feet apart, said owner Sarah Heard.
"We're not going back to 25%," Heard said. "We don't understand why capacity matters if the tables are six feet apart. Our chances of not surviving this for something that doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense—it doesn't seem right."
In late March, restaurants were ordered to close their dining rooms and serve to-go only. On May 1, they were allowed to open at 25% capacity. On June 3, that was expanded to 50%, then to 75% nine days later.
Heard was one of 30 restaurant and small business owners who signed a pledge last week, created by a two-year-old local organization called Good Work Austin, listing 15 health measures they would be taking, some in alignment with state and local protocols, and others going beyond.
- Dine-in customers provide names and sign health declarations
- Staff counseled on appropriate behavior outside of the restaurant
- Enforced hand-washing by staff every 30 minutes
- Daily temperature checks for staff
- Masks enforced on staff and customers (except while dining)
The point of pledge is to not only protect the health and safety of staff and customers, but also to create consistency amid an environment of constantly changing rules, said Adam Orman, co-founder of Italian eatery L'Oca d'Oro and head of the GWA.
"What we wanted was to have clear guidelines that are agreed upon by as many people as possible, that are clearly delivered to guests so that guests and owners are on the same page," Orman said.
Then on Monday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler asked restaurants to return voluntarily to 25%.
But many establishments say that, financially, the choice is not whether they will stay open at 25% capacity. It's whether they will stay open at 75%—or close altogether.
"Based upon everything I have heard from clients, if a second shutdown occurs, it will be the final nail in the coffin for small businesses across Texas, irrespective of industry," Hajjar said.
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Nicklaus Pereksta says he loves photographing enthusiastic people, and it’s why his latest gig offering pictures to people out on Lady Bird Lake’s hike and bike trail is going smoothly. He sets up his gear on the Pfluger pedestrian bridge and puts out a sign: Photos, $10.
“Overwhelmingly, this has been a really positive experience,” Pereksta said. “I get excited when I wake up in the morning and I can't wait to go to work.”
Bikers and joggers are excited about it too. On the pedestrian bridge leading to downtown Thursday morning, a man on an e-bike rode up and posed, wanting more photos.
“I posted the last pictures on Instagram and people loved it. They asked, ‘where is this guy?’” the biker told Pereksta. Bashfully, Pereksta, who also photographs landscapes and at weddings and other events, said he was happy to hear that.
Pereksta started these photos about a month ago, after the strenuous runs required in his valet job started causing pain in his legs. And though he has a passion for photography, he wasn’t so sure when he started working independently if it would work out.
He felt uncertain about the demand for it and was also worried about having lots of expensive equipment out in the open.
“Then like the first day was nothing but high praise and people are like, this is so awesome. This is great. I've never seen anything like this before. I was like, Wow, this was really good, like positive turnout. So I got encouraged.”
Now, he wants to expand and is thinking of contacting the Mueller Farmers Market about how to become a vendor. Still, he'll carry a connection to photographing on the bridge since the word bridge is related to his last name.
“It's a name my great, great, great grandfather came up with when he was marrying somebody. It's actually quite a romantic name. It means a joining of two bridges," Pereksta said. "So, I thought it was ironic that I'm set up on a bridge. I'm kind of representing my last name right now.”
Austonia talked to Pereksta about life in Austin, where he’s lived for eight years after living in Boston doing band photography.
What was your first experience with Austin?
I came here to visit some friends and they took me to Barbarella. So we went to Barbarella and I was like, ‘wow, this place is great.’ And then the restaurants and the food and going to Barton Springs. I was like, ‘this is amazing.’ Because there's nothing like that in Boston. If you want to go to a natural spring, you got to go to New Hampshire. There's no pools in the city at all. So there's lots of swimming out here.
What do you like best about Austin?
You go to any little quiet bar and there's a band playing that should be like onstage for a sold out show. Yeah, they're playing to 10 people, right? Like, one of the best bands ever and they're playing for 10 people, right? And just little magic moments like that are pretty fun. You just run into little random weird things.
What do you think makes Austin different from other places?
There’s no fall.
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