New COVID Safety Rules for Special Events
Negative COVID tests, other measures now required for city-permitted events
As more events return in person amidst Austin's current surge of COVID-19, local officials are requiring organizers to follow enhanced safety measures in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Last week the Austin Center for Events, which coordinates the work of more than a dozen city departments – including Austin Public Health – released new guidelines for the department's special events permit application process. For indoor events with 1,000-plus attendees and outdoor events with over 2,500, organizers must require attendees to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the event; maintain at least six feet of distance between all attendees; and implement "mask zones" in outdoor areas where distancing is not possible.
The new guidelines are updates to ACE's "Bringing Events Back" safety guide first rolled out in April, which required event organizers and certain venues to submit a COVID-19 Health and Safety Plan online for APH's review. If the plans aren't sufficient to meet the new guidelines, APH staff will work with organizers to strengthen mitigation efforts. Organizers of smaller events are encouraged but not required to incorporate the recommendations into their planning. However, not all events and venues require permits through ACE, so aren't required to adopt the new guidelines. This includes Austin FC matches and other events at Q2 Stadium, Circuit of the Americas, and the new Moody Amphitheater in Waterloo Park. Bars and clubs that hold annual sound permits also don't need to secure ACE permits.
One of the first large events under the new guidelines, on Sunday, Sept. 12, is The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival at South Austin's Far Out Lounge. Although the outdoor event falls under the 2,500-capacity threshold, organizers have decided to implement some of the new guidelines' safety recommendations, including an email screening questionnaire to be sent out to attendees prior to the festival, asking whether they've received a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours or are fully vaccinated. Ticket sales have also been capped at 2,000. When the Festival was last held in person in 2019, at Fiesta Gardens, the Chronicle applied for its special events permit directly.
Last week, before ACE's release of the new guidelines, anticipated permits for two outdoor events last weekend, Bat Fest and the H-E-B Austin Sunshine Run, were denied amid the ongoing COVID-19 surge. Bat Fest producer Roadway Productions said in a statement, "We are shocked and devastated as this is a huge financial blow and harmful to our reputation as event producers. We know it's also hard on our ticket holders, our vendors, our bands, etc." Roadway owner French Smith told the Chronicle its COVID-19 plan for Bat Fest was approved by APH in July; a city spokesperson said the permit was denied "out of an abundance of caution," citing the Delta variant and strains on medical resources. "These strains can impact the City's delivery of emergency-related services and the provision of City services required to support government functions."
The city's special events ordinance, adopted in 2018 after years of work with event stakeholders, allows ACE broad leeway to deny permit requests that overburden the city's public safety resources. Now, as legal wrangling over local measures to thwart COVID-19 plays out in the courts, Smith asks whether Austin should again seek to limit all large events and gatherings as it did in 2020. "I love all events, but it is not right to shut down one and let the others continue," he said. "What good is that?"