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Travis County Judge Won't Let Bars Reopen At 50% Capacity

Pedestrians cross the street near bars on East Sixth Street in May.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Bars were allowed to briefly reopen in May.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said he’s not going to allow bars to reopen at 50% capacity Wednesday, citing a memo from the county's top doctor saying COVID-19 "continues to be a threat."

"In the past ten days, Travis County has seen an increase in hospitalized individuals, ICU bed utilization, and ventilator use," Biscoe said in a press release. "As such, I cannot in good conscience allow bars to reopen at 50% of capacity at this time."

Biscoe said he will reevaluate the situation with Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott in 14 days to determine whether it's safe to reopen bars.

“Given that we’ve just opened schools in Austin ISD and Del Valle ISD, now is not the time to take substantial risk associated with COVID-19 transmission,” Escott said during a news conference Wednesday after the announcement.

He said the recommendation to keep bars closed was based on the COVID data in Austin-Travis County in tandem with projections from the University of Texas Modeling Consortium, which show a “66% chance of increasing epidemic over the next month.” 

“We’ve seen major metropolitan areas around the state make the same decision that Judge Biscoe did,” Escott said. “That includes Travis County, Dallas County, Harris County. … We’re seeing that these larger population areas are more concerned about the risk. We will continue to make recommendations based on the science.”

Travis County will not be joining other Central Texas counties — Hays, Williamson, Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell and Comal — in allowing bars to reopen under the governor's order. 

Gov. Greg Abbott closed Texas bars in June as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were surging in the state, but restaurants and other businesses have been allowed to reopen at limited capacities. Many bars have begun operating as restaurants so they can meet the requirements that allow them to open.

Last week, the governor said bars could reopen at 50% capacity if local judges gave the OK. Bars that reopen must follow certain health protocols. Dance floors must remain closed, and customers must stay seated while eating or drinking. Patrons have to wear masks when not seated at a table, and tables have to be limited to six or fewer people. Bars also can’t serve alcohol after 11 p.m. 

The 50% capacity limit does not apply to outdoor areas. 

Escott said the county would look into reopening bars, but with tighter capacity restrictions to begin with. 

“If the data changes in the future, in two weeks' time, the recommendation will change,” he said. “I think as a community, we all want to know the facts. And we are certainly committed to showing those facts, as it drives policy.”

This story has been updated.

Andy Jechow contributed to this report. 

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Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
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