Bexar County Judge will allow bars to open, following task force’s recommendation

COVID-19 task force recommended bars open under additional safety measures

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff plans to follow the recommendation of a city and county COVID-19 task force to reopen bars, he announced Wednesday evening during the nightly briefing.

A subcommittee of the COVID-19 Community Response Coalition issued a memo Wednesday recommending the reopening of bars in Bexar County, as long as 75% of the bars commit to additional safety measures.

Wolff said Wednesday evening that most of the 3,000 bars in the county had already reclassified as a restaurant, and that his order will allow the remaining 425 bars to reopen.

Wolff plans to file the necessary paperwork with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission on Thursday. It’s unclear exactly when the order will take effect, Wolff said he hoped it would be in effect early next week.

Bars have been closed throughout the summer after a surge of COVID-19 cases in Texas. Citing a drop in hospitalizations, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order earlier this month that allowed county judges to open bars, provided a county’s COVID-19 hospitalizations make up less than 15% of hospital capacity.

The coalition’s Policy and Health Alerts Workgroup reviewed the order before making the recommendation to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

The recommendation was non-binding, but Wolff ultimately agreed with the recommendations, saying that nearly all of the requirements were not onerous, though he could not enforce the suggested outdoors capacity due to the governor’s executive order. Neighboring counties quickly moved toward opening bars.

The task force group believes Abbott’s order does not include the necessary safeguards against the spread of COVID-19.

“The current order from the Governor does not provide enough tools to assure a safe reopening of bars,” according to the memo. “We believe a safe reopening is possible following a harm reduction model to mitigate risks.”

The group recommends bars voluntarily comply with the following guidelines:

  • Occupancy of no more than 50% total capacity indoors, and 50% total capacity outdoors (Wolff said Wednesday the outdoors capacity would be in violation of the governor’s order and cannot enforce it).
  • No standing or congregating indoors or outdoors while waiting for a table or entering/exiting. Create pre-set 6-foot distanced circles to help patrons observe safety measures.
  • Ensure that ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors and prioritizing outdoor seating.
  • Face coverings should be consistently and correctly worn if not actively eating or drinking. This includes while dancing.
  • Keep tables at least 6 feet apart.
  • No seating of multiple parties at one table
  • No ordering, seating, or congregating at bar (remove bar stools or take out of service)
  • Actively encourage employees to stay home when they are sick or have been exposed, for example through flexible sick leave policies.

According to a matrix from the workgroup that ranks activities from the lowest risk of exposure to highest, bars and nightclubs rank in the highest-risk category along with other crowded indoor establishments, gyms, and activities with exercise, loud talking or singing.

The map below shows which counties are allowing bars to reopen in Texas:

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

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