The order sets a $1,000 fine for violation of the restrictions.
“We are never going to be able to enforce our way to compliance levels that keep us safe,” Mayor Steve Adler said in a Wednesday press conference, stressing the need for voluntary compliance.
Austin’s public health official, Mark Escott, said, “We are in a state of crisis. One in five of every person hospitalized in Texas has coronavirus.”
The city and county’s case count is higher than it was a few weeks ago, reporting 697 new cases on Tuesday. Hospitalizations remain manageable.
The hospitals Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White, and St. David’s Healthcare issued a joint statement this week, stating they currently “have sufficient staffing and capacity to care for both patients with COVID-19, as well as those with other medical conditions.”
“However, similar to the weeks following Thanksgiving, we are beginning to see an increase of COVID-19 cases in our local communities and in our hospitals following the recent holiday gatherings,” they added.
According to figures periodically issued by those hospitals, their bed capacity includes 2,473 staffed and 483 intensive care unit (ICU) beds. Without further detail on total occupied capacity, 434 patients are currently hospitalized with coronavirus while 138 are in the ICU.
As of Wednesday afternoon, according to those hospitals, the staffed beds are currently 78 percent occupied while the ICU beds are 85 percent occupied.
The state’s operative order governing business opening and closing restrictions uses the 15 percent of hospital capacity as a coronavirus metric. A few hospital regions in the state have exceeded that mark for seven consecutive days and thus had their openings rolled back. Austin’s hospital region has not surpassed that 15 percent metric any of the last seven days, but it has inched closer and closer.
When the city’s order was announced Tuesday night, Governor Abbott fired back, stating, “This shutdown order by Austin isn’t allowed. Period. 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.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton also responded with his own statement, saying, “You must rescind or modify the local orders immediately or face imminent legal action from the State.” Pointing to the governor’s order which states it supersedes all local ones, he further added, “The orders ‘restrict services allowed by’ GA-32 and are thus unlawful and unenforceable.”
Shortly after close of business, the Attorney General’s Office filed suit against the City of Austin over its closure order.
Austin Talley, owner of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse on Sixth Street, told The Texan the city’s bars will miss out on anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 dollars in revenue without New Year’s Eve business.
Because of his establishment’s structure, he can only operate at 40 percent capacity, far lower than the 75 percent capacity allowed under Abbott’s executive order.
Despite that, Talley’s business is bringing in more revenue than last year. Personal costs have come, though, too — not the least of which came when a friend of his committed suicide this year.
“He survived Iraq and Afghanistan; was an Army Ranger; served in uniform and government agencies as a contractor but he succumbed to his demons because of the stress caused by the inability and unknown of being able to make a living,” Talley stated.
Michael Graham, co-founder of Austin Beerworks, told The Texan that the closure will not affect them much as most of their business has shifted to off-premises sales such as to grocery stores and other retailers. Some of the on-premises business has recuperated since the initial shutdowns, but “not enough to where an earlier curfew will make a big impact.”
To restructure, Talley spent $50,000 remodeling his business to meet the state’s requirements to qualify as a restaurant, which were subject to lighter restrictions than bars.
“I just want the government out of the way, allowing me to operate my business taking all the necessary and recommended health precautions,” Talley said. He added that conversations with numerous other bar and restaurant owners have yielded a resolution among the group to accept the fine and operate anyway.
The New Year’s revenue is too pivotal to pass up, Talley added. “That missing revenue will offset the costs we’ve incurred during the nine months of this pandemic.”
Come tomorrow night at 10:30 p.m., Talley will keep Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse open for in-house dining and drinking. His event is ticketed, and patrons must remain with their parties at their respective tables they have reserved.
The same system was used for Halloween during which they resold their tables three times over as parties left and arrived.
Austin’s restaurants and bars missed out on the revenues from South by Southwest and Austin City Limits, and with New Year’s Eve in question, some that are teetering on the brink may not survive without it.
Talley is one of the few that will survive regardless. His and the others’ defiance is itself a protest — one that will help receipts outweigh expenses.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the lawsuit filed by the Office of the Attorney General shortly after this publishing.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.