Starting next week, Gov. Greg Abbott will allow Texas bars to reopen at 50% capacity indoors in counties that choose to opt in and where COVID patients account for no more than 15% of hospitalizations.
"It is time to open up more provided that safe protocols are followed," Abbott said in a live Facebook announcement on Wednesday.
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe intends to take the next several days to confer with the county attorney's office and the Austin-Travis County Health Authority to determine the safest route, according to a statement.
Certain health protocols must be observed, at a minimum, at those bars that reopen, according to the governor's reopening strike force.
Bar customers may not loiter at the bar and should remain seated at their tables, groups must maintain six feet of distance from each other unless partitions are in place, dance floors must remain closed, and contactless payment is encouraged.
Texas Bar and Nightlife Alliance President Michael Klein issued a critical statement in response to the governor's announcement, saying he has "passed the buck" to county judges.
"[T]his is a death sentence for so many of our members under the jurisdiction of county judges who still believe that we should be locked down like we were in March and April, despite all the progress we've made coexisting with this virus," he said.
New COVID cases and related hospitalizations are declining in Austin. However, Texas has reported more COVID cases than any other state in the last week, according to a data analysis by the New York Times.
Local health officials have repeatedly stressed that allowing bars to reopen would be unwise given their current ways of operating.
"It's unmistakable that when people come together face-to-face without masks on for longer than 15 minutes, the risk of transmission is going to increase," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday. "So there would have to be substantial changes in how bars function to make them safe."
Abbott initially closed bars in March before reopening them in May. But when COVID cases surged statewide in late June, he closed them again.
Last month, Abbott announced restaurants and other businesses could increase their capacity to 75% but that bars would have to remain closed because they were "nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations."
Some Austin bars have already reopened under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's guidance that allows them to reclassify as restaurants if a majority of their sales come from food rather than alcohol.
But this approach hasn't worked for everyone, and many industry groups and bars owners have criticized the governor, saying their businesses and service industry workers' jobs are at stake.
Abbott said reopening bars this time around will be more successful because Texans are more aware of protective measures, the protocols in place have improved and the state is better equipped to test and trace new cases.
"Opening bars does not mean that COVID is no longer a threat," he said. "We simply now know better how to protect ourselves from getting COVID."
Abbott also announced that other businesses—including amusement parks, movie theaters, zoos, aquariums and bowling alleys—may open at 50% capacity on Oct. 14.
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Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."