Hundreds of Texas bars and restaurants are scrambling to change how they operate, maneuvering through loopholes that will allow them to reopen after being closed by Gov. Greg Abbott's latest shutdown targeting bars.
Abbott has shut bars down twice since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Texas. The first time bars were swept up in a total lockdown of statewide businesses. But the second time, on June 26, Abbott singled bars out while allowing virtually every other kind of business in Texas to stay open.
But other operations such as restaurants that sell a lot of booze, wineries and breweries were ensnared in the same order and also forced to close because alcohol sales exceeded 51% of total revenue, meaning they were classified as bars.
"Generally everyone has a common sense understanding: 'What is a bar? And what is a restaurant?' I think that 51% rule is so broad that it actually picks up or encompasses businesses that we would normally think of as really being restaurants," said State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, one of more than 65 lawmakers who signed a letter asking Abbott to update his order's definition of a restaurant.
Wray gave the example of a burger restaurant, where a patron might buy a burger and two beers. Oftentimes, the beer will cost more than the food, but that doesn't make the restaurant a bar, he said.
Emily Williams Knight, Texas Restaurant Association president, estimates that about 1,500 restaurants ranging from steak houses to coffee shops that sell wine were "inadvertently" forced to close when Abbott shut down bars, translating to about 35,000 lost jobs in the state.
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission responded to outcry from the service industry with new guidance in a July 30 notice allowing businesses to either demonstrate that they recently had less than 51% alcohol sales or use alcohol sales projections and apply for a Food and Beverage Certificate, documentation that allows them to reopen as a restaurant.
The certificate workaround requires the business to have a permanent kitchen. It allows bars and restaurants to use projected sales numbers instead of requiring past sales to determine if alcohol sales exceed food sales.
The TABC received more than 600 requests from existing businesses for Food and Beverage Certificates since Abbott's order took place and granted about 300, according to commission spokesperson Chris Porter. Almost 90 businesses have also requested to update their alcohol sales numbers in an effort to reopen.
The Texas restaurant industry is already struggling, with Knight projecting that up to 30% of restaurants in the state could go out of business.
For those forced to shut down due to the bar order, it can be a death sentence and business owners see these changes as their last hope.
After his Dallas restaurant was closed for a second time, Lava Cantina owner Ian Vaughn knew he'd have to figure out a way to reopen — and fast — for the sake of his more than 100 employees and to save his business.
After three weeks of pursuing various options to reopen, Vaughn updated his sales numbers to include live music ticket sales from concerts, knocking his alcohol sales percentage down to about 39%. This allowed him to resume operations.
"I was highly distressed throughout the entire time," Vaughn said. "I had over 100 people out of work, and I just needed to get my staff back, and I had bills to cover and no idea how we were going to ultimately make ends meet. You feel completely helpless."
Even some traditional bars can reopen using the same workarounds outlined by the TABC — as long as they have, or will obtain, permanent food service facilities.
Justin Kaufman, owner of the El Paso Drafthouse and The Rey Muerto, decided to reopen his bars as restaurants by using future sales projections to get a Food and Beverage Certificate.
Functionally, Kaufman's businesses operate almost the same as before the second shutdown, using the safety measures he implemented when he was first allowed to reopen. He offers the same menus but now requires all patrons to purchase food with their drinks to ensure he stays under the 51% alcohol sales limit. He also hired additional chefs to deal with the increased food sales.
Although he's happy to be open, finding a way through the state's loopholes took time and money.
Kaufman estimates that the entire process, from hiring new chefs to deal with increased food sales to applying for the permits cost him around $10,000.
"I wish things have been a little different, and I wish we'd been taken into consideration," he said. "I've had no choice but to kind of sidestep these situations and do what I got to do to stay open."
However, the option to reopen doesn't work for everyone. Kim Finch, owner of Dallas bars the Double Wide and the Single Wide, said adding just one kitchen to her facilities would cost about $30,000. A grease trap alone would cost $15,000, she said.
After already draining her savings to keep the bills paid while her businesses are bringing in zero income, adding that expense not an option for her.
"You're just in the dark, you know nothing," she said. "No one's mentioned a 'maybe date.' There's not too much longer that we can all just stay closed and keep paying bills."
Breweries also found themselves forced to shut down by Abbott's order, with two-thirds of Texas craft brewery owners predicting that their businesses could close permanently by the end of the year under the current closures, according to a July survey by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.
Hopsquad Brewing Co., an Austin brewery, reopened as a restaurant using a Food and Beverage Certificate with an onsite food truck serving as its kitchen, General Manager Greg Henny said.
He was lucky, because the brewery already had a food truck on site, Henry said. But he thinks breweries and wineries should have their own classification separate from bars, because they operate differently.
Henny said the guidance from the TABC has been confusing and harmful to breweries. To help other businesses survive the pandemic, the agency allowed "retail and manufacturing businesses" to serve and sell alcohol in a patio or outdoor area that wasn't part of its original designated premises, which some brewery owners took as being able to reopen.
However, the TABC later released a clarification saying that businesses with more than 51% alcohol sales were not eligible.
"The circumstances are constantly changing as a result of which way the winds are blowing with [the TABC]," he said. "It makes us feel frustrated. We're fighting tooth and nail just to stay open, and we've shown time and time again that we can operate safely," he said.
State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Texas Legislative Tourism Caucus chairman led the efforts behind the letter sent to Abbott asking for an updated restaurant definition.
"You've got a lot of these establishments — these restaurants — that are kind of in limbo just because of how much alcohol they sell," he said. "Restaurants that have already been decimated by the first initial shutdowns with the pandemic [and] by some people's reluctance to want to come in and eat."
The letter asks that any business with a permit or license from the TABC still be considered a restaurant if it has a permanent kitchen that is operational during all business hours, serves multiple entrees, includes an exhaust hood and fire suppression system, only serves seated customers and follows social distancing protocols.
Abbott did not respond to requests for comment.
Krause said he also believes bars could safely reopen as well.
"I'd like to see them be able to open up under certain restrictions under certain guidelines," Krause said. "They're ready, willing and able to comply with those."
Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist at Texas A&M University School of Public Health, said that the rise of COVID-19 cases can't be attributed to any one factor, including to bar activity, but instead is a combination of many. However, it is likely bar activity did have an impact on the overall transmission rate and some areas saw declines after their bars were closed and the mask mandate was in place, she said.
The typical bar environment makes it easy for the virus to be transmitted, she said. People are typically in much closer quarters, willing to socialize with strangers and can't wear masks as they're drinking. Even speaking loudly or singing over music can propel droplets further than usual, she said.
Clendenin said to reopen bars safely, it will take consumers making sure that they are holding themselves accountable and bar owners enforcing social distancing, masking and other safety practices.
"But ultimately at the end of the day, bar owners need to be able to provide for their employees and their families," she said. "This is a very difficult time for everybody, but it goes back to individual responsible behavior and I can't emphasize that enough."
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To help make sense of all the information emerging about COVID-19 in Austin, we're answering a few big questions:
Is the COVID situation improving?<p>Not quite.</p> <p>Local health officials have identified hospital admissions as a key metric because it is not affected by reporting delays or testing shortages.</p> <p>"It's a good predictor of actual case burden in the community," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday.</p> <p>The number of COVID-related hospitalizations in the Austin metro has held steady for the last 10 days. </p> <p>"The trend has been relatively flat," Escott said. </p><p><br>Since the start of the month, the average number of hospitalized COVID patients has declined 44%, from 146.8 on Sept. 1 to 82 on Sept. 29. </p> <p>But the average number of new cases reported each day has increased 42%—from 78 to 111.1—over that same time period. </p> <p>Escott has attributed these diverging trend lines to the increasing number of cases among young people, who are much less likely to require hospitalization than older patients. </p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ1MTI3Ni9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTk4MDI4NH0.XxvY7wkBOfT-BtHF8JhtIGX0Dv8apitlsV-JZMb53pA/img.png?width=980" id="f2149" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e69fc96d61833754a62b5ea7a5e9cb3e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
What is a "twindemic"?<p>It's time to add another word to your pandemic vocabulary.</p><p>Health experts have raised concerns of a "twindemic," when the COVID pandemic inevitably overlaps with the annual flu season, which begins in October.</p><p>Last year's flu season was particularly bad, Escott said last week, and local ICUs hit capacity from flu patients alone.</p><p>"Our hospitals cannot handle surges of both," he said. "We're going to have to ration care."</p><p>Escott has encouraged Austinites to <a href="https://austonia.com/flu-season-austin" target="_self"><u>get vaccinated</u></a> before the flu season intensifies this winter. </p><div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="187ed35bc13596eb1d0e6e1e0ba084ea"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/austinpublichealth/posts/3992955670717819"></div></div>
What is going on with schools?<p>Austin ISD is preparing to reopen <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-school-reopening" target="_self"><u>for in-person learning</u></a> next week, following in the footsteps of other area districts, including Eanes ISD and Round Rock ISD.</p><p>Escott is supportive of AISD's reopening plan, which follows Austin Public Health guidelines to start capacity limits at 25%. He said there is no evidence that disease transmission is occurring in classrooms or <a href="https://twitter.com/AustinISD/status/1310716756374237186" target="_blank">while students are passing in hallways</a>.</p><p>"For those who are concerned about putting teachers at risk, I'm married to an educator, and she went into school today," Escott told the AISD board of trustees on Monday. </p><p>He added that the risk of transmission appears to be limited to extracurricular and social activities, where students may not be wearing masks or adhering to social distancing guidelines. </p><p>In total, local primary and secondary schools that have already reopened have reported 24 COVID cases among students and 21 among staff since mid-August, according to APH data shared Tuesday. An additional 116 people have been identified as "close contacts" of impacted students and staff. </p><p>The University of Texas at Austin <a href="https://austonia.com/ut-austin-spring-semester" target="_self"><u>announced this week</u></a> that it is planning on a spring semester structured "in much the same way" as the current term. </p><p>In a community-wide email sent on Monday, President Jay Hartzell commended students for making adjustments, which he wrote have helped keep the university's COVID numbers "as low as possible."</p><p>Since the current semester began on Aug. 26, the university has reported more than 700 cases among students and fallen short of its stated goal to test 5,000 asymptomatic community members a week. </p><p>Hartzell said the university is working out "some kinks" in its proactive testing program, including not requiring a second confirmatory test for students' whose rapid tests return positive results, allowing for walk-up testing without an appointment and debuting a new incentive program, details of which are forthcoming.</p>
What metrics would help determine a drop to a Stage 2 level of risk?<p>The number of new COVID hospitalizations each day would need to fall below 10, on average, and the local positivity rate would need to drop to 3% or lower for local health officials to recommend a move to Stage 2 of <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-covid-stage-3" target="_blank">their risk-based guidelines</a>, Escott said.</p><p>At this lower level, recommended restrictions would loosen. Social gatherings would be allowed to increase from 10 people to 25, and residents would be allowed to resume non-essential trips and return to work at reopened businesses.</p><p>Travis County is currently reporting 12 new COVID-related hospital admissions each day, on average.</p><p>The overall positivity rate was 4.4% last week, but disparities remain across demographic groups, with Latino residents returning a positivity rate of 8%. </p>
What about testing?<p>Demand for testing has declined post-surge. </p> <p>Escott said last week that testing sites administered by APH are testing about 2,000 people a week despite having the capacity to test more than a thousand people a day.</p> <p>It is important to note, however, that the testing numbers reported by APH do not include the positive results from <a href="https://austonia.com/rapid-covid-test" target="_self"><u>rapid antigen tests</u></a> because of CDC guidance that they be considered "probable" and not "confirmed." </p> <p>Like the genetic, or polymerase chain reaction tests, administered at APH testing sites, rapid antigen tests detect positive infections. They also provide results in about 15 minutes, which is central to their appeal.</p> <p>While they are marginally less accurate, rapid antigen tests are in fairly wide use. Some private testing sites in the Austin area report that <a href="https://austonia.com/coronavirus-test" target="_self"><u>the majority of the tests</u></a> they conduct are rapid due to patient demand. </p> <p>Between Aug. 6 and Sept. 24, a total of 2,174 positive rapid antigen test results were reported in Travis County, according to APH. The department would not release information pertaining to the number of positive antigen tests performed overall. </p> <p>During that same time period, 6,648 COVID cases were confirmed by positive genetic test results in Travis County. </p> <p>If the cases detected by rapid antigen testing were considered "confirmed" rather than "probable," the local caseload between Aug. 6 and Sept. 24 would have increased by about a third. </p>
What is post-COVID syndrome?<p>Nine months into the COVID pandemic, doctors across the world are reporting that the virus has become a chronic condition—post-COVID syndrome—for some patients, known as long-haulers.</p> <p>"As people recover from the initial infection, studies are starting to show that in some patients, it might actually take weeks or even months to return to baseline health," Dr. Esther Melamed, an assistant professor of neurology at Dell Medical School, said in a press release issued Tuesday. </p> <p>Long-hauler symptoms may include difficulty breathing, headaches, memory problems, overwhelming fatigue and persistent loss of taste and smell, as well as worsening of pre-COVID conditions, such as diabetes and mood disorders. </p><video controls id="8e12e" width="100%" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc522351e8e55862283aed7dc73050d" expand="1" feedbacks="true" mime_type="video/mp4" shortcode_id="1601497346135" url="https://roar-assets-auto.rbl.ms/runner%2F19818-Melamed-Post-COVID-Syndrome---Media.mp4" videoControls="true"> <source src="https://roar-assets-auto.rbl.ms/runner%2F19818-Melamed-Post-COVID-Syndrome---Media.mp4" type="video/mp4"> Your browser does not support the video tag. </video>
What is the status of federal coronavirus relief funding?<p>Local and state governments must spend all of the federal coronavirus relief dollars they received through the CARES Act by the end of the calendar year, despite the ongoing nature of the pandemic and <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/29/pelosi-mnuchin-set-to-talk-as-.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>the absence of additional relief packages</u></a> passed by Congress. </p> <p>"We must continue to provide testing and contact tracing," APH Director Stephanie Hayden told Austin City Council on Tuesday. "Those efforts have really helped us as a city and a county… We have to just flag it for you all that federal funding is slated to end this December."</p> <p>Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday that the state will allocate $171 million of CARES Act funding to help renters <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/09/25/texas-rent-help-evictions/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>avoid eviction</u></a>.</p> <p>The Travis County Commissioners Court discussed last week how best to meet the December deadline. As of mid-September, the county has spent less than one-fifth of the federal relief dollars it received through the CARES Act, although the remainder has been allocated.</p>
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By Patrick Svitek
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