Bar owners worry as virus surges in their workplaces

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Michael Neff, co-owner of the Cottonmouth Club, works on a computer while sitting at the bar Tuesday, June 23, 2020, in Houston. Neff closed his downtown bar because of concerns within the industry as the number COVID-19 case continues to rise in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON – The din of conversation and music that normally fills The Cottonmouth Club in downtown Houston fell silent last Friday when the owners shut it down for a second time during the coronavirus pandemic — a week before the Texas governor ordered all bars to follow suit amid a surge in infections.

Co-owner Michael Neff — questioning what he saw as a rush to reopen by the state and wondering if his industry was making things worse as some bars flouted rules on occupancy limits — said he felt he could no longer provide a safe environment for his staff or customers at the neighborhood bar with a rock ‘n’ roll vibe.

He and his staff had started hearing of workers at other bars getting sick.

“Texas was a terrible, terrible experiment because it experimented with people’s lives and this is where we are,” Neff said.

That ended Friday, with Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement that bars would again be shuttered, a day after the state reported a record high of nearly 6,000 confirmed cases and on the day that Texas surpassed 5,000 hospitalizations for the first time.

Neff said while he faulted bars that ignored the rules, he also lays blame on local and state officials for what he says was a lack of guidance and support, a lack of a statewide mask order and, until recently, a lack of enforcement.

It’s a sentiment shared by other bar and restaurant owners across the state and beyond who have been deeply hurt financially by anti-virus measures and are also struggling with tough decisions, with some shutting down again after workers became infected or closing as a precaution because of rising cases in their areas.

In a nearly eight-minute video he posted online earlier this month, Neff vented his frustration, beginning with a message directed at Abbott: “You’re leading us to die.”