In Austin, Texas, masks are still the rule, not the exception.
Austin, Texas has a long and strong habit of of doing its own thing. We are described as a "blueberry in a sea of tomato soup," although Texas went purple for the first time in decades in the last election.
The most recent tussle between the city of Austin, led by Democrat mayor, Steve Adler, and Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas, a Republican, is the one about lifting all COVID preventive measures, including wearing masks and opening restaurants and bars to 100% capacity. Mayor Adler is against it, but the order doesn't allow for cities to impose their own mandates.
In normal circumstances, Austin would embrace open bars. West Sixth street, or "dirty sixth," is nearly all bars and tattoo parlors. Sixth street is traditionally where University of Texas students gather on weekends to drink, mingle in the street that is closed to traffic during those times, get drunken tattoos, and generally raise a ruckus. It's where every tourist has to go at least once. Sixth street has been compared to Bourbon street in New Orleans and Beale street in Memphis.
In recent years, Rainey street has been added to the mix. The area used to be a small pocket of lower class housing immediately adjacent to the freeway, I-35. Developers bought the often decaying houses, and restored them to beome bars and restaurants. The students and twenty-somethings from dirty sixth, and upper west sixth overflowed onto Rainey when it first opened.
Tourists and residents have always flocked to South Congress, with its bars, restaurants, and trendy stores. Early COVID restrictions nearly closed Sixth, Rainey, and Congress. Take out saved most restaurants, but bars suffered.
Bartenders in Austin have been on unemployment off and on for up to a year. Bars added snack foods and food trucks in order to be considered "restaurants" that could open at 25%, then 50%, and therefore managed to survive. Younger Austinites went back to the bars.
As a result, my twenty-seven year old son and most of his friends have had COVID. The sister of one of them died of it.
Now, Governor Abbott has declared the entire state open at 100%. Restaurant owners and workers are worried.
The chef of Olamaie, Michael Fojtasik is quoted in Austin360 saying, "I know people who have caught the virus and died from it. I know that there are people who are in the homes of the people who work with me who are at risk and who are not vaccinated. This is the second time that our state leadership has put us in a bad position by reopening too early. We had made some progress, and now it's all going to be walked back."
El Naranjo restaurant, one of the most populalr restaurants on Rainey street ,has posted signs saying people without masks would not be served. Others on popular tourist streets such as South Congress are following suit.
The bar and restaurant owners main concern is when employees will be able to get vaccinations. So far, that's been a challenge. Travis County, Austin's county has vaccinated 170,721 people. Travis countyy has a population of 1,328,720. Vaccinations have been difficult to find in Austin until this past week. Even with more access to vaccinations, employees of bars and most employees of restaurants are not in the first three CDC tiers. They aren't first responders, over 65, and few have immune disorders or other qualifying medical conditions. While restaurant workers are considered essential workers, that doesn't get them in line for the vaccine.
Without being vaccainated before customers descend at 100%, service industry workers are at increased risk. After being unemployed or underemployed for nearly a year, it's unfair to ask them to put themselves further at risk simply because they must work.
The main question Austin, Texas restaurants and bars are asking, or should be, is why open at 100% without a mask mandate before vaccinating all workers? In Texas, we call that putting the cart before the horse.