How a Year of COVID-19 Has Impacted Austin Restaurants 

In the span of 12 months, Austin has gone through: the cancellation of South by Southwest; the emergence of a highly contagious virus; the complete shutdown of the city and state; grocery shortages; the renegotiation of public interactions; face masks becoming the norm, and yet being highly politicized; premature reopenings of businesses; uprisings against police brutality and racial injustices; not one, but two immense virus surges; a polarizing election; a winter storm crisis that overwhelmed and exposed a fragile state power system; and, just recently, the governor deciding that now is the time to fully reopen businesses and cancel mask orders while 90 percent of the state’s population remains unvaccinated; Austin deciding it will still require masks; and now the Texas attorney general threatening to sue over that. Not to mention the deaths of nearly 45,000 Texans and counting, because the novel coronavirus pandemic is still happening.

But even with all these trials, remarkably, Austin remains strong. The city still stands, albeit more battered and wobbly than it did back in February 2020, when the first pandemic domino fell in Texas.

A year ago, what once seemed impossible, laughable even — a last-minute cancellation of South by Southwest, Austin’s biggest event of the year, which brought in $355.9 million to the city in 2019, not to mention indirect revenue for businesses and workers — happened. SXSW, for the first time in its 34 years of existence, was canceled, just a week before the sprawling festival was supposed to take place.

In one haunting moment, the city felt the bottom dropping out of a cornerstone of its economy and identity. It was an “Is this the end of the world?”-type feeling — a “holy fuck” moment felt by many. And every moment since, the city has been grappling with that reality.

Clockwise from top left: People marching in downtown Austin in July 2020, after a vigil for Garrett Foster, who was shot and killed during a protest against police brutality that same month (Sergio Flores/Getty Images); Nearly empty bread shelves at H-E-B in Austin in February 2021 during the statewide winter storm and forced power outages. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images); A Central Texas Food Bank volunteer loading boxes of food in November 2020, just ahead of Thanksgiving. (Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock.com); Downtown Austin right after South by Southwest was officially canceled in March 2020. (Gary Miller/Getty Images)

In hindsight, there was no possible way that SXSW could’ve happened safely in 2020, as it would have brought in over 200,000 people from around the U.S. and over 100 countries across the world. It would’ve surely become Texas’s biggest superspreader event.

Immediately, the city, and especially the local restaurant and bar industry, went into panic mode. That anxiety was initially directed more toward the loss of the festival — particularly the lost revenue and temporary work from canceled reservations and promotions — than the looming pandemic, but it would soon be overtaken by the more universal feelings of uncertainty. And then, on what would have been the first day of SXSW, March 13, the conversation changed. Suddenly, large events with 250 people were banned, the first (but not the last) set of restaurant virus-mitigation requirements were issued, and sales started to plummet. Restaurants that observed the writing on the wall reluctantly closed down or switched to takeout services. Austin, like the rest of the nation, was in freefall with no bottom or safety net in sight. Austin’s mayor closed all nonessential businesses on March 17, which was followed by the statewide order on March 19 halting on-site service at restaurants and bars.

Today, the landscape of Austin is wildly different than it was a year ago, and yet in many ways eerily the same. SXSW is back again this year — but only virtually. The country is in the process of rolling out mass vaccinations with three safe, effective vaccines, but there are still months to go before things will return to “normal.” Instead of mass shutdowns, many states are embarking on cautious or, in the case of Texas, reckless reopenings.

Clockwise from top left: What Austin dining looked like in June 2020: Diners ordering food from South First Indian truck Bombay Dhaba; a waiter taking orders on the patio of South Congress restaurant Perla’s; a customer waiting to order food from East 11th Street barbecue truck J. Leonardi’s Barbeque; the socially distanced patio setup at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress. (all photos by Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The act of dining out is not the same anymore. In light of the virus, the old formats became unsafe, and businesses were forced to turn to new ways of providing service and did so with verve despite the emotional, physical, and financial tolls. Now, bars and restaurants that have endured will likely continue to operate in a very different way than before, with expanded takeout, walk-up windows, online ordering and delivery, and to-go cocktails. Masked people walk around ordering coffees through plexiglass shields, sitting six feet apart from friends, sanitizing their hands after each interaction. Takeout is the new norm.

What’s been most challenging, however, is the loss of personal connections and interactions, from the random run-ins with friends at restaurants to chatting up people sitting at the bar to playing with roaming dogs at beer gardens, but Austin has persevered in that, too. There’s a reason why virtual dinners and concerts became a new part of the social fabric of the city, and why spacious, socially distanced outdoor patios are in high demand. Each day, residents, businesses, and workers have proven they’re willing to do their part until everyone can safely hang out again.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this past year, when hope felt at times in short supply, was the way Austinites came together to support one another: People stayed home; mutual aid groups organized to help the people who need it the most; local restaurants used their spaces to cook food for groups in need; and during that disastrous winter storm, regular citizens and restaurants made and delivered food and water to people without power and running water, stepping in where the government fell glaringly short.

A staffer wiping down tables at Perla’s in June

A staffer wiping down tables at Perla’s in June 2020
Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At the same time, the pandemic has forced Austinites to reflect, and, in some cases, rethink how they interact with others and how they show courtesy and appreciation to service workers — the lifeblood of that vibrant food and entertainment community that makes the city so special. Those workers came to work to feed their communities when their government failed them, oftentimes earning a fraction of their pre-pandemic paychecks despite enduring challenging, existentially dangerous working conditions.

As the city moves forward, I hope these lessons stay with us and that the community continues to take care of what matters the most: its people. With regulations now repealed, it will be up to Austinites to once again keep each other safe until the pandemic is behind us: Mask up, tip 30 percent or more, get your vaccine when you’re eligible and help others get theirs, and spend your dollars at the restaurants that matter and contribute back to the community.

If the city’s residents continue to stand by each other and listen to sound, scientific advice, Austin can come out stronger from this. A year from now, many of the struggles of this tragic period could be behind us. The vibrancy of downtown could return when offices reopen and people can travel safely. But, most importantly, Austin can continue on its path to becoming a place that doesn’t second-guess treating everyone — especially service workers — with respect.

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