Travis County District Judge Allows Austin’s Dine-in Limitations

Update: Texas Supreme Court blocks local dine-in orders

Judge Amy Clark Meachum hears arguments on Texas A.G. Ken Paxton's challenge to Austin-Travis County limitations on dine-in services over the New Year's weekend (Image via YouTube)

The Texas Supreme Court has blocked Austin’s limitations on dine-in services over New Year’s Eve weekend. The highest civil court in the state issued its decision last night (Jan. 1), just hours before Austin-Travis County limitation’s on dine-in food and beverage services were set to begin at 10:30pm for a second night.

The court’s brief decision came a day after a Travis County District judge had denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s petition for a temporary injunction and a temporary restraining order against the local orders. Following a remote hearing before the 201st District Court on New Year's Eve, Judge Amy Clark Meachum ruled that the state didn’t demonstrate a probable right to relief nor imminent and irreparable harm in its challenge over Austin-Travis County orders limiting dine-in food and beverage services between 10:30pm-6am beginning on Dec. 31 and running through this Sunday (Jan. 3) at 6am.

Paxton had filed the suit earlier this week arguing that the Austin-Travis County orders violated Governor Greg Abbott’s GA-32 executive order in response to the pandemic. In Thursday's hearing in state district court, lawyers representing the Texas Attorney’s General Office argued the executive order supersedes any local COVID-19 orders that restrict services allowed under GA-32, which does permit dine-in services. Attorneys representing Austin, Travis County, Mayor Steve Adler, and Travis County Judge Andy Brown said that the local orders do not, in fact, mandate businesses close but allow them to continue services via curbside, take-out, drive-through, and pick-up after 10:30pm. The dine-in limitations, they argued, are “narrowly tailored” temporary orders aimed at mitigating the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott, who was called as a witness by the defendants, testified that the local orders were put in place in an attempt to limit high-risk behavior: gatherings in which people living in separate households are not wearing face masks. He said specific age groups driving the spread of COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County – young adults ages 20-40 – were likely to want to go out late to restaurants and bars during New Year’s Eve, which could further drive spread given the likelihood of protective measures not being practiced.

Furthermore, the attorneys representing the city and county noted that the Texas Attorney’s General Office had not yet pursued legal actions against El Paso County and Bexar County for similar dine-in limitations. However, one lawyer representing the Texas Attorney’s General Office said during Thursday's hearing that there were plans to file suit “imminently” against El Paso over its dine-in limitations.

In a statement released after Meachum’s Dec. 31 ruling, Judge Brown said, “Today’s ruling will help our community slow the spread of COVID-19, while allowing businesses to safely continue their operations through take-out, drive-thru, and delivery service options. I encourage everyone in Travis County to order food for takeout from a local restaurant and to celebrate safely at home tonight.”

Hours after Meachum's ruling Paxton announced he'd filed an appeal in the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals requesting the court temporarily block the local orders by 9pm on New Year’s Eve – less than two hours before the orders were set to take effect. The appeals court swiftly denied the state’s request; however, the state soon appealed that decision to the Texas Supreme Court, which issued an order last night (Jan. 1) directing the 3rd Court of Appeals to grant the state’s request. Consequently, the 3COA issued an order enjoining enforcement of the local limitations.

The Texas A.G. thanked SCOTX in a statement released following the court’s decision. “Local declarations cannot order needless shutdowns in conflict with the governor’s order, and these orders demonstrated blatant contempt for the citizens and businesses of our great state,” said Paxton. “The Court was right to end these oppressive, illegal city and county declarations and I wish every Texan and Texas business a happy and safe New Year.”

This is a developing story.

This story has been updated since publication to reflect Texas A.G. Ken Paxton's filing an appeal in the 3rd Court of Appeals as well as the Texas Supreme Court's decision blocking the local orders.

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COVID-19, Ken Paxton, Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney's General Office, 201st District Court, Amy Clark Meachum, GA-32 executive order, New Year's Eve 2020, Texas Supreme Court, 3rd Court of Appeals

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