SAN ANTONIO – Open, closed, open, closed - such is the way for Texas bars, which were reclosed Friday at noon after Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new executive order in an effort to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Abbott’s order reclosed bars and establishments whose receipts consist of 51% or more of alcohol sales. Abbott blamed “bar-type settings” among the reasons for widespread cases of coronavirus over the last month in Texas, saying that “in reality, just doesn’t work with a pandemic,” Texas Tribune reported.
Texas bars were closed in mid-March, allowed to reopen at 25% capacity on May 22, got the go-ahead to increase capacity to 50% on June 3, and then on June 26, Abbott issued an executive order to reclose all bars with roughly 3 hours notice.
“If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting,” Abbott said.
But those back-and-forth closures have left many who depend on the bar industry for income concerned about how they’re going to make ends meet. KSAT spoke with several people in the bar industry around San Antonio who shared their experience navigating the bar closures in an industry that is rapidly changing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I personally could not disagree with it more, especially how it was announced. For all previous shutdowns, we were given some type of hint or warning that the shutdown was going to happen. This time around we all woke up one morning only to be completely blindsided with another shutdown, but with no inclination as to how long we would be forced to close,” said Jordan Engberg, a bartender in San Antonio with nearly 10 years of experience.
Engberg said some bars had ordered a lot of items, including perishable products, after they reopened, now equating that to “throwing money down the drain.”
Engberg noted that it’s not just bar owners and their staff who are losing out, it includes musicians and all kinds of other jobs as well. “This is a snowball effect that is devastating families.”
Braunda and Jesse Smith, who own Lucy Cooper’s Texas Ice House in San Antonio, said at least a third of their sales are food items but because of 51% or more of their sales come from alcohol, they have had to close. “Think of it like ordering a burger and then you have a couple of beers with your meal. We’re really no different than a Hooters or a Willie’s or a Twin Peaks other than that we’re 21 and up,” Braunda said.
The couple, who say they feel like bars are being vilified, told KSAT they took every precaution advised by the state - removing tables and seats to space everyone out at least 6 feet apart, putting down red tape to create zones to signify 6-foot minimum standards, installing hand sanitizer stations and conducting temperature checks for bartenders.
For her part, Braunda said she wished Abbott would look at the “broad spectrum” of places like nightclubs and dance halls where socially distancing isn’t happening and take that into consideration before pointing the finger at bars as a whole. “I don’t feel like you should lump us in with some of the bad actors or businesses who didn’t follow guidelines.”
Brett Humphrey, who has been in the bar business over 20 years and currently owns a company that provides entertainment at bars around the city, said: “all of the bars that I have personally been to have been following strict guidelines placed by the state and city and enforced by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, police and code officials.”
The state’s bar regulating agency conducted stings across Texas in recent weeks to find establishments who were not following guidelines. At least a dozen bars across the state temporarily lost their alcohol permits, but ultimately Abbott decided those socially distant guidelines were not enough to slow the spread and completely shut down all bars.
“The mayor recently started implementing rules where businesses would incur fines and could lose their TABC license over people in the establishment not following the standards in place. This takes the ownership of the issue off the people that are breaking the rules, and on to the tax-paying business owners that are trying their best to stay afloat,” Humphrey said.
He agreed something should be done about people not following the rules but added, “I believe the punishment should be dealt out to the person that feels they are above the law, and not to the business itself unless the business is willfully breaking the rules in which case these fines and punishment seem to fit.”
“There are other events in the last few weeks that may be more at fault than the reopening of bars and restaurants, yet we are feeling the brunt of this punishment, for lack of a better word,” said Engberg. “It’s just heartbreaking to see friends of mine that own and operate businesses wonder if they are going to be able to weather this 2nd round of shutdowns.”
Braunda said she thinks the government leaders in charge of the decision to reclose bars are “cutting their nose off to spite their face” because of lost tax revenue.
The Texas Comptroller reported $57 million in alcoholic beverage tax revenues for April 2020. That number is down 55% from April 2019.
“If bars are still closed and the CARES Act expires, all these people who are on unemployment will have to be paid and that comes out of our pocket. We’re already losing money as it is. Rent and other bills still come every month and we don’t have any revenue,” Braunda said. “It further drives us into bankruptcy.”
President Trump signed the CARES Act into law on March 27, and part of the new law created a Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which gave states the option to provide an additional $600 a week to people on unemployment, according to the Department of Labor.
The extra $600 per week is currently set to expire on July 25 for Texans.
“With the latest closure, this seems like a blame game coming down from above. With no direct clue who to blame or how to go about it, it seems the easy target bars,” said Humphrey. “While the threat of COVID is real, and scary for all of us, the snap quick response to shut down bars does not seem like a very well thought out or planned approach - while leaving many other places open that people are just as likely to come in close contact with each other.”