Waco follows lead of state’s largest counties; closes bars, restaurants

(Photo courtesy of Bluesky Helicopter Tours)
(Photo courtesy of Bluesky Helicopter Tours)(KWTX)
Published: Mar. 16, 2020 at 5:48 PM CDT
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Waco Tuesday followed the lead of the state’s two largest counties, declaring a local state of disaster and public health emergency and ordering bars to close and limiting restaurants, wineries and microbreweries to take-out and drive-through service.

The city’s order, which takes effect at midnight, bans any gathering, indoor or outdoor, that brings or could bring 50 or more people together in a single room or enclosed space.

It also closes down indoor recreational facilities and indoor amusement facilities, which include such businesses as gyms, theaters, pool halls, bingo halls and video arcades.

The order, however, does not apply to schools, office space, child care facilities, residential buildings, grocery stores, malls, retail establishments, hospitals and medical facilities provided that those present “are generally not within six feet of one another for extended periods.”

The order is effective for seven days, but likely will be extended at least through the end of March, Mayor Kyle Deaver said.

A violation of the order is a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine, Deaver said.

The city is urging residents to cancel or to avoid non-essential events involving more than 10 people and is urging high risk individuals to cancel, reschedule and to avoid non-essential events of any size.

No cases of the virus have been confirmed in Waco or McLennan County.

Some Waco area restaurant owners were already taking steps to help stem the spread of the virus, according to Kyle Citrano, the president of the local chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association and the operator of George’s #2 in Hewitt.

He said Monday he’s been in touch with TRA and other statewide groups making plans for what might be coming next and finding ways to both serve his customers and support his employees.

“I have people come in for breakfast and lunch every day, I mean every day they eat two meals here and I have to be able to provide meals for them,” Citrano said.

In addition to that he has several dozen employees who count on their jobs to feed their own families.

“They work hourly, and the wait staff gets tips, but they need those paychecks,” Citrano said.

The Texas Restaurant Association issued a statement Monday that addressing proposals to close restaurant and bars for two weeks or more.

“By continuing to provide drive-thru, take-out/pick-up, and delivery service, Texas restaurants will lead their communities through this crisis by driving ‘no contact’ procedures and ensure people have food to eat and stabilizing those employees’ income to support their own families,” the association said.

“More than 50% of food consumed by citizens of Texas comes from restaurants,” the TRA release says, and “with grocery store shelves already bare, the more than 50,000 restaurants in Texas, are heavily regulated by their health departments and are voluntarily doing even more to keep people safe.”

Effective Saturday, the city closed all Waco-McLennan County Public Libraries, the Cameron Park Zoo, City of Waco Community Centers, City of Waco Senior Centers; the Waco Convention Center, the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Waco Tourist Information Center, and Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum and the Lake Waco Wetlands.

The city says it has taken steps to ensure it can continue to provide sewer, solid waste services, and clean, safe water; ensure that public safety officers have the resources that they need to respond to emergencies; provide transit services; facilitate the preservation of infrastructure and facilities, and maintain the functionality of Waco Regional Airport.

Faith-based community and other organizations have also taken steps to reduce gatherings.

In light of Deaver’s declaration Tuesday, the Waco Immigrants Alliance called on McLennan County officials to reduce the population of the county’s jails.

The sheriff’s office earlier announced that jail visits would be suspended as part of the effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

The organization is seeking the release of inmates 65 or older with chronic medical conditions, those with less than 30 days remaining on their sentences, those awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses, those whose bonds total less than $50,000 and reduction of bonds for those held for nonviolent offenses or who don’t pose a significant safety risk.

“Avoiding or refusing to take necessary action to reduce the jail population will put jail staff, their families, and the larger community at greater risk, and will create enormous burden on jail medical staff and broader local medical resources in the event of inmate infection and rapid spread of COVID-19. We implore our County officials to remain proactive in keeping our community and vulnerable populations safe,” the group said.

On Tuesday Austin officials announced a similar measure that closes bars and restaurant dining rooms.

Dr. Mark Escott, director of Austin-Travis County Health Authority, also announced that public gatherings in the Texas capital are now limited to 10 people, which is more restrictive than similar measures taken in Dallas, where officials have ordered that public gatherings not exceed 50 people.

The Texas Capitol in Austin also will be closed to the public starting Wednesday, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the State Preservation Board.

The Capitol Visitors Center, the Texas State Cemetery and the Capitol Visitors Parking Garage also will be closed for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.

On Monday officials in Dallas and Harris counties announced strict measures as part of the nationwide effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

At midnight Monday in both counties, all bars, theaters and clubs were closed for business.

Restaurants are now limited to providing takeout or delivery service.

And any gathering of more than 50 people is banned outright in both counties.

The measures apply to businesses in both Houston and Dallas as well as dozens of surrounding communities.

(Paul Gately contributed to this story)

(KWTX)—In response to a growing number of proposed orders such as the one Waco officials announced Tuesday, the Texas Restaurant Association is calling on elected officials not to close restaurants down entirely, but instead to allow them to provide drive-through and take-out service.

Waco’s emergency order allows for both, but does close down bars and taverns.

Closing restaurants altogether, the TRA says, “would drive panic and complete societal breakdown.”

“More than 50% of food consumed by citizens of Texas come from restaurants. With grocery store shelves already bare, where would people go?” the association said.

Allowing drive-through and take-out service, however, would “ensure people have food to eat and in turn provide (restaurant) employees with income to support their own families.”