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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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more race in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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Houston? Dallas? San Antonio? No, it has to be Austin.
We know Californians love Texas, but a recent string of posts on neighborhood platform Nextdoor in Santa Barbara, California, displays what the craze to move to Austin looks like.
When one user posted, "Hi neighbors, I want to buy a house in Houston, Texas any recommendations?" the responses flooded in displaying what the admiration for Austin looks like from the West Coast. Users mostly advised against a move to Houston; one person even wrote, "Austin is the ONLY place to consider!!"
While some defended H-town, saying, "Awesome place to live," one person wrote, "WORST PLACE TO LIVE." Reasons to not move to Houston from Californians' perspective included:
- "Foul air from refineries"
- "horrible flooding due to the flat Gulf coastal shelf"
- "crazy zoning"
- "racial prejudice"
- "super high humidity"
- "very conservative"
The comments were shifted to Austin's lush greenery, weather and acceptance of gay people.
Over the last five years, Austin has seen more migrants from California than any other state, according to an Austin Chamber of Commerce report. The Austin appeal from residents living in more congested places like California became more prevalent during the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued and people sought more space.
It wasn't just Austin though; lots of other Sunbelt cities saw an influx in their housing market as a result of people working from home and looking for a lower cost of living. And that included Texas in general, with people flooding to various Texas cities.
But it hasn't come with resistance. The "Don't California my Texas" pleas are still alive and well, as Californians are blamed for raising the cost of living by outpricing current residents. The housing market has reached record numbers in the median home price year-over-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Austin was even predicted to be the most expensive city outside of California by the end of the year.
Still, Californians and even New Yorkers can't stay away. Companies and celebrities have followed, leading Texas transplant Elon Musk to label Austin's future as "the biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."