As part of a new city and county order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and the omicron variant issued Thursday, January 13, Austin and Travis County are now allowing businesses — including restaurants and bars — to require that their employees are vaccinated and boosted.
The “Protecting Customers and Employees and Preserving Adequate Workforce Capacity” order also allows these businesses to require negative COVID-19 tests from both employees and customers, or just proof of vaccinations and boosters. Likewise, places may require that employees and customers wear masks, though this was already permitted for individual businesses under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders.
This new order aims at empowering businesses to protect their staffers in light of the highly contagious virus, which is surging across the U.S. Restaurants have been short-staffed due to employees testing positive for COVID-19 and/or getting sick leading to slimmer teams, shorter hours, or temporary closures; however, local officials hope that encouraging businesses to require proof of vaccination or a negative test will help slow down the spread of COVID-19 and keep restaurants open.
The unusual order also stipulates that all businesses, whether they choose to implement at least one of those policies or not, must post entrance signage indicating which COVID-19 requirements are being followed on the site. This is in accordance with the state orders nixing all COVID-19 measures.
All businesses will also have to post general COVID-19 safety signage concerning employment safety with masks, vaccinations, and boosters when the city and county are in stages 3, 4, and 5 of its coronavirus risk-based guideline stages (which is currently 5).
A state order, instituted in March 2021 by Abbott, banned local jurisdictions from enacting stricter COVID-19 mitigation measures such as citywide masking and vaccine requirements. Despite that, Austin kept its mask mandates triggering a subsequent lawsuit by the state. As a result, only businesses that aren’t government properties or residential buildings can follow the new Austin and Travis County order.
Presumably, the City of Austin is getting around that state order against any statewide coronavirus measures by keeping the measures optional for businesses, as well as requiring that employees be vaccinated instead of customers. Over the summer, when Launderette and Fresa’s attempted to require vaccination proof from diners, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission threatened to pull their liquor licenses.
The order is effective as of Monday, January 17 at noon.
The City of Austin also shared that it would send out 96,000 masks to local small businesses to help in these masking efforts. Veronica Briseño, the city’s chief economic recovery officer, also noted that the city will offer more economic relief grants and programs this year for local businesses.
The city escalated into the highest stage of its coronavirus risk-based guidelines — 5 — earlier this month due to the surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations brought on by the omicron variant. As of January 12, the region’s seven-day moving average of hospitalizations is 112, with a community transmission rate of 1,254 and the positivity rate of 33.1 percent. There have been 6,365 new cases over the past seven days.
Update, 12:56 p.m: This article, originally posted at 11:15 a.m., was updated with further clarification on the signage rules as shared by a Travis County official.