It’s still 2020, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that New Year’s Eve is canceled. That’s essentially the consequence of the City of Austin’s new order limiting dine-in food and beverage service during the New Year’s holiday weekend. And while the order has left Austinites disappointed they won’t be able to kick this despicable year to the curb at their favorite eateries, it is local restaurant and bar owners and workers who are truly suffering.
“The timing of this curfew is, quite frankly, cruel coming from a city that has done the bare minimum to support the hospitality industry,” says Jessica Sanders, owner of Hyde Park gastropub Drink.Well and a board member of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance.
According to the City of Austin and Travis County orders, issued December 29, “dine-in food and beverage service will be restricted by City and County order” from December 31 at 10:30 pm through January 3 at 6 am. Though the order does allow for venues serving food and drinks to operate between 10:30 pm and 6 am on those days, they may only offer drive-thru, curbside pickup, takeout, or delivery service. Venues will still be allowed to offer limited dine-in service outside of the set curfew hours. Violations could result in a $1,000 fine, and Mayor Steve Adler says officials will be enforcing the order this weekend.
The move was brought on by increasing concerns about further COVID-19 transmissions and hospitalizations in the region and comes in the wake of Austin and Travis County reaching Stage 5 — the highest level of COVID-19 community risk — December 23, and Interim Medical Director and Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott warning the city could welcome 2021 under a state of emergency.
“The situation is critical,” Escott said in a release. “We are asking the public to stay home as much as possible and not gather with people outside their households for New Year’s Eve. We are asking people to only go out to restaurants for takeaway, delivery, or drive-thru services. We are now experiencing uncontrolled widespread community transmission of COVID-19, particularly in circumstances where masking and distancing are not possible, making bars and similar establishments extremely concerning over this holiday weekend.”
The order has not come without criticism, both from other government entities and from local proprietors themselves. Gov. Greg Abbott posted a tweet shortly after the city and county orders were issued, arguing the so-called restaurant curfew isn’t legal.
“This shutdown order by Austin isn’t allowed. Period,” the governor’s tweet reads. “My executive order stops cities like Austin from arbitrarily shutting down businesses. The city has a responsibility to enforce existing orders, not make new ones.”
Caught up in the politically charged battle are area restaurants and bars, which have essentially been left to face the business-crushing hardships on their own. The bleak state of affairs has resulted in scores of local eateries closing, establishments being unable to provide consistent dining and bar services, and the demise of steady jobs for Austin’s many hospitality-industry workers.
Sanders knows this misery all too well, as she’s had to adjust Drink.Well’s service offerings multiple times in 2020, culminating in the restaurant halting its dine-in service voluntarily Christmas week. The restaurant is still offering curbside pickup and limited delivery service.
“We voluntarily closed dine-in services at Drink.Well last week, in part, because we could see the writing on the wall and knew further pressure to limit service was coming,” Sanders says. “I wanted to mitigate the health-and-safety risk to my team and our guests. While I am glad to have personally gotten ahead of it, I’m furious and heartbroken for my colleagues who were trying to do what is best for their business only to have a decision at the 11th hour send them into chaos.”
While the pandemic has left restaurants and bars scrambling to navigate this new normal and hospitality employees continue to grapple with job-security concerns, Sanders admits there’s no simple solution, but insists the local restaurant industry could have fared better with more support and purposeful, shared direction from government entities, as opposed to the political bickering that has ensued.
“This standoff between Governor Abbott and Mayor Adler only serves to breed public confusion and mistrust in leadership,” she says, “which, in turn, has forced otherwise responsible restaurant and bar owners into making precarious decisions about public health to keep their businesses solvent. It just isn’t right. We all should have closed sooner but with more tangible support from those with the power and pocket to do so. This could have all been avoided.”