Texas is open, y’all. With Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent lifting of the mask mandate and spring breakers gleefully bounding around the Lone Star State as if it were the before times, the City of Austin isn’t taking any chances on large gatherings, providing new COVID-19-specific safety guidelines for bringing back indoor and outdoor events.
Effective immediately, the new specifications — outlined in a guide titled “Bringing Events Back: Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Safety Guide for Venues & Special Events” — focus on health and safety recommendations for indoor venues, as well as new special-event permit requirements for outdoor events.
The city notes that these new guidelines are meant to be a starting point so events can begin to roll out once again, and they will be updated regularly as health conditions in the area change. The move toward allowing more events was brought on by the fact that the area is “moving in the right direction” in terms of the pandemic, according to Austin-Travis County interim health authority Dr. Mark Escott.
“We actually have a glimpse of normalcy as a reward of the hard work our community has done to protect each other with masking and hygiene practices, but to make this a reality, we have to stay vigilant in the protection of ourselves and our community,” he says. “If we see a surge in cases and hospitalizations, we have the flexibility to reconsider the scale of the event, modify the mitigation strategies, or cancel if needed.”
The livelihood of Austinites working in the event and entertainment industries is certainly at the forefront of the decision, with the city bearing in mind that the local convention industry generated $587 million in 2019 alone. Likewise, South By Southwest 2019 had an estimated economic impact of $355 million, and each year, nearly 1.3 million people visit Austin for festivals and outdoor events.
“The overwhelming majority of events and venues in Austin-Travis County are locally operated and have an immediate benefit to the Austin economy, community, and culture,” the new guide says. “In the wake of COVID-19 and the unprecedented impacts to the experience sector, the City’s event partners, and the general industry need more information to plan for safely resuming their business operations.”
The guide’s safety guidance for all venues and events in Austin and Travis County states they must:
- Provide a designated isolation room or area so anyone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms during an event can be immediately isolated
- Develop case notification plans to comply with Austin Public Health requirements for contact tracing and report positive cases to APH
- Provide a trained safety coordinator to ensure compliance and oversee enforcement of the venue’s COVID-19 health and safety plan
Safety guidelines for indoor venues also include ensuring social-distance measures are followed (with the guide offering up no less than 10 key ways to do so), and providing enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures (including venues’ ability to require face coverings).
The same guidelines apply to all outdoor events. Additionally, a COVID-19 Health and Safety Plan is a new requirement and must be included with all special-event permit applications. Additional info is provided in the guide on minimum requirements for safety and sanitation for outdoor events, as is guidance for all venue employees, vendors, and food and beverage providers.
Also getting back up and running are some city-owned event facilities. The Austin Central Library will begin hosting private events and facility rentals April 1, but on a limited basis and at a reduced capacity. And all events must get approval from local health authorities and adhere to Austin-Travis County COVID-19 safety guidelines.
APH gave the Austin Convention Center the go-ahead to begin operating at 25 percent capacity, and will raise that capacity limit as the number of vaccinations increase.
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department will continue to evaluate reopening park facilities, picnic sites, event buildings, and special-event sites in accordance with the city’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“We understand the pandemic has caused incredible economic impacts on venues and special events and affected consumer confidence,” says city manager Spencer Cronk. “Releasing these guidelines now indicates cautious optimism for events based on the current COVID-19 health conditions.”