Texas bar owners say they’re going broke and are desperate for Abbott to lay out a reopening plan

Emil Bragdon’s bars have been shut down for almost two months, he’s running out of money. And lately, he’s been asking himself: What would Shelley Luther do?

Bragdon said he and other bar owners across Texas that he talks to are seriously contemplating opening up illegally to get the governor’s attention.

After all, it worked for hair salons, Bragdon reasons, referring to Luther, the Dallas businesswoman who gained national attention for illegally reopening her salon and being sentenced to jail after refusing to apologize. Gov. Greg Abbott ultimately allowed salons to reopen May 8 — more than a week ahead of his initial schedule following Luther’s ruckus and pressure from within his own party.

“This one lady did it and she got a lot of attention and now all the salons are open,” Bragdon said. “Is that something we have to do? Because if we have to do that we'll do it.”

Texas bar owners like Bragdon and out-of-work bartenders say they’re desperate for Abbott to set a date and outline procedures for their reopening, as he’s already done for retail, restaurants and most recently hair salons and barbershops.

“You’re definitely sitting closer to a stylist at a salon than you are with other people at the bar,” said Jennifer Bonilla, who has worked as a bartender at The Billiard Den in Richardson for 11 years. She went from working five days a week to just two or three days working to set up a socially distanced version of the bar for its eventual reopening. Now Bonilla barely makes enough to cover utilities for her and her mother.

The bar industry has been completely shut down for more than 50 days, banned from take out sales that have allowed some restaurants to limp by, even as restaurants were given some permissions to sell to-go booze. Texas bars have shed about 75,000 jobs and $630 million in revenue due to mandatory shutdowns. That’s also cost the state about $40 million in liquor tax revenue, said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, Texas Restaurant Association’s vice president of government affairs and advocacy.

“It’s been devastating,” Erickson Streufert said.

Last month, Abbott said he hoped to reopen bars "on or no later than mid-May.” He has since walked back the timeline for when bars can open their doors to customers, saying he first needs feedback from bar owners and doctors, given how much bars vary, especially when it comes to size.

“We also need to recognize kind of the very nature of a bar. And that is it brings people close together ... in a setting that really is the type of setting that promotes the transmission of infectious diseases,” Abbott said during a May 5 press conference.

Bar owners said they can adapt, just like restaurants were allowed.

“He let restaurants open way earlier. And it's just not fair, man,” Bragdon said. “Just be fair and don't pick and choose what businesses like slowly open.”

Abbott declined to comment for this story.

But on Tuesday, the governor indicated that if bars could replicate restaurants’ reopening model — limited capacity, a restricted number of people per group and spacing out customers — “there could be a pathway toward opening them up,” he said in an interview with KPRC.

Earlier this week, the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance and Texas Restaurant Association each sent the governor’s reopening task force recommended guidelines — with rules that mirror the guidelines set for restaurants.

The Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance is also encouraging bars to do a soft reopening on Friday, said Bob Woody, a Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance board member and owner of multiple Austin bars.

While the soft launch would be closed to customers, it would show government officials and customers walking by that bars are ready to reopen. It will also be an example of how the reopening guidelines they sent the governor’s task force work in practice.

Ellis Winstanley, who owns the bar Cain & Abel’s, located in the University of Texas at Austin’s west campus area, won’t be participating in the Friday launch since he already had a “bit of a false start” when Abbott made the restaurant announcement.

A month ago Winstanley and his staff reorganized the bar and went through new procedures just to find out the reopening didn’t apply to his business.

“We got ready and then said, okay we'll stand down for a minute,” Winstanley said.

In Richardson, the staff of The Billiard Den put the time they’ve spent shutdown towards making sure reopening goes smoothly. The team printed disposable menus, removed seats and barstools, got microphone covers for karaoke and installed a stainless-steel bartop. The old bartop was made up of small tiles that could hold a lot more bacteria than the new stainless steel, Bonilla said.

Now all they’re missing is the governor’s go ahead.