'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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Austin police have charged Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, a local cyclist, for the murder of Moriah "Mo" Wilson.
Wilson, a rising star in the gravel and mountain bike community, was found dead with gunshot wounds inside an East Austin home on the night of May 11 when she was in town for the weekend Gravel Locos race in Hico, Texas.
Police believe Wilson was having a relationship with a man Armstrong was also in a relationship with. The man, another gravel cyclist, Colin Strickland, has since issued a statement on the murder.
In his statement, he said he had a brief romantic relationship with Wilson in October 2021 before he resumed his relationship with Armstrong, but that he remained friends with Wilson. "There is no way to adequately express the regret and torture I feel about my proximity to this horrible crime. I am sorry, and I simply cannot make sense of this unfathomable tragedy.
NEW: Austin professional cyclist Colin Strickland has just released a statement about the murder of cyclist Moriah Wilson, clarifying his relationship with her and expressing “torture about my proximity to this horrible crime.” pic.twitter.com/KnIna3mWrE
— Tony Plohetski (@tplohetski) May 20, 2022
Wilson, a 25-year-old Vermont native living in Colorado, had won a slew of races becoming a fan favorite. She had just become a full-time racer this year.
Anyone with information on this crime can contact Austin police at 512-974-TIPS or contact Crime Stoppers anonymously at 512-472-8477.
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Austin has added 24-hour security to the city-owned Pecan Gardens property, which will be converted into supportive housing for people exiting homelessness, after the former hotel was found with months of damage and vandalism May 5.
The building, which was broken into and stripped of copper and had people illegally sleeping inside of it, has been secured, Kelly said in a Friday press conference. Kelly said the city confirmed a measure to implement 24-hour security, including updates every 60 days until the property opens up as supportive housing.
"We cannot let this happen to any vacant city-owned property ever again," Kelly said. "This blatant act of disregard and criminal behavior will not be tolerated in our community."
The city bought the former hotel in August 2021 for $9.5 million with plans to renovate the property into a 78-unit supportive housing property. Those 55 or older that are experiencing chronic homelessness can qualify to live at the site once it is completed in late 2022-early 2023.
While the council was set to discuss a $4 million deal with Family Eldercare to begin converting the property Thursday, Kelly pulled the item for a later executive session due to security concerns. But the council did approve an item to authorize city leaders to begin negotiating other renovation contracts.
"I want to thank my colleagues for pumping the brakes on this contract and realizing that we owe the community not only an apology, but reassurance that the protection of the assets the city owns is vital to the success of achieving our intended goals," Kelly said.
When the building was found vandalized May 5, Kelly, who presides over the district containing the property, said damage included:
- Damage spanning all three floors of the building and is in nearly every room.
- The entire hotel was stripped of copper.
- Destroyed washers, dryers, air conditioners and electrical wiring.
- People sleeping at the hotel without permission.
On Tuesday, Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Gray apologized and said there was no security due to a delay in processing the request.
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