Sudden shutdown of Texas bars leaves owners, employees (and patrons) uncertain about the future

Workers board up bars on Sixth Street in Austin after Gov. Greg Abbott closed them in Texas for the second time in three months Friday during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)
Workers board up bars on Sixth Street in Austin after Gov. Greg Abbott closed them in Texas for the second time in three months Friday during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

HOUSTON – Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

Even some Texans who have been to bars complain about the hazards.

“I felt comfortable going out and being outside felt OK and still feels somewhat OK as long as I’m wearing a mask,” said 24-year-old Tyler Taba from McKinney, who’s visited two breweries in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “But most other people were not wearing masks besides the servers and there were large groups of people just hanging out.

“I think the idea in people’s minds was, ‘We’re past this or the coronavirus isn’t so bad,” he said.

When Blake Mitchell, 21, visited a bar in College Station on June 9, he said employees weren’t wearing masks nor gloves. He described the venue as “super packed” — even for a Tuesday night.

“We asked the host what the protocols were and he said ‘Well, you have to be 21 to get in,’ so it didn’t seem like staff had even been trained or briefed on social distancing protocols,” he said.

The concern for patrons’ safety and wellbeing in bars, a potential accelerant for a pandemic that has engulfed Texas, has borne out in recent weeks as large hordes of bar hoppers congregate for drinking after a hot summer day.

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

In mid-March, Abbott threw bars a lifeline by allowing to-go alcohol sales. Restaurants and bars latched onto the idea. Now, Abbott wants to make the change permanent.

The rule of thumb for such services was that Texans could sip their drinks from the comfort of their socially distanced homes. But patrons, thirsty for both alcohol and social interaction after months of required isolation, were eager to venture outdoors. From Austin to McKinney to Tyler, Texans describe the bar scene as both cathartic and chaotic: indoor drinking has become the norm, with groups of friends sitting outdoors waiting for a table or booth to sit in. Often, no protective gear is worn.

Even before Friday’s ban, some bars and restaurants were already voluntarily closing after employees tested positive for the coronavirus. The Continental Club in Austin told The Texas Tribune prior to Friday it had “no plans to reopen in the near future out of concern for the health and wellbeing of our employees, musicians and patrons.”

Matt Wolski, one of the owners of Parlor and Yard in downtown Austin said he’s attracted few new customers since the pandemic began. Typically a bustling hunting ground for after-work cocktails and light weekend sips, Wolski said the bar has received about 20% to 30% of the business it received before COVID-19 struck. Fortunately, he said, he hasn’t had to furlough or fire any of his hourly employees since business reopened.

Still, Wolski said, “It’s been slow.”

Both Parlor and Yard and Stereotype, another bar in Austin Wolski owns, opened shortly before Memorial Day weekend. He said he was hoping for a boom in business after months of an initial closure premeditated by the state government.

“For downtown bars like ours we thrive on corporate happy hours and events, and of course with no one in the offices that’s nonexistent,” he said.

Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, Wolski said he had been hopeful — “until recently.”

The shift, Wolski said, came as Texas on Thursday saw another record number of new cases — 5,996 — as well as hospitalizations — 4,739.

Before noon Friday, bars were still allowed to remain open at 50% occupancy.

“Most people coming out in the first month I don’t think we’re too concerned about the coronavirus,” Wolski said.

Several bar owners told the Tribune that even with restrictions on bars already in place, they struggled to reach 50% capacity due to social distancing guidelines anyway — they typically didn’t have the square footage to keep a large number of people six feet apart.

“It might seem like a backward thing to say now since I’ve already been to one, but I don’t feel like going to a bar is necessary or an urgent thing,” said Taba of McKinney. “It’s a luxury and there are other ways to see people and be outside without putting people at risk.”

The uncertainty fostered by the pandemic has left bar owners feeling like every week is a new world for them. While to-go sales have been steady, the upcoming holidays and summer months — plus rising case numbers — could keep them in the dark for months.

“I’m not happy with the situation, but I’m taking it in stride. This is going to set my life plans back a couple of years but I’ll be alright,” Noyes of Fort Worth said.

Then he paused.

“But I’m afraid a lot of people I know that own bars are going to lose their businesses altogether.”