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(Karlee Steele)

Sarah Heard, owner of North Loop's Foreign & Domestic, says it she can't afford to scale back to 25% capacity again.

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.

Among them:

  • 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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