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As Texas Restaurants Expand Service, Struggling Bar Owners Say They’re Being Ignored

Bars who don’t serve food are still not allowed to reopen, causing frustrated owners to accuse the governor of picking winners and losers in the reopening process.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
A sign on the door of the West Alabama Icehouse reads “Closed by the Governor”, Monday, June 29, 2020, in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars again and scaled back restaurant dining on Friday as cases climbed to record levels after the state embarked on one of America’s fastest reopening.

As Texas expanded its occupancy rules for restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic, bar owners say they’re still feeling the pinch — and some have accused the governor of picking winners and losers in the reopening process.

Gov. Greg Abbott last week announced restaurants, retail, offices and other businesses could not allow up to 75% capacity, starting Monday.

But most bars and night clubs remain closed in Texas, leaving struggling bar owners frustrated.

The Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance sent a plan for reopening to the governor’s office in August, according to Greg Barrineau, who owns Drink Texas in San Antonio and sits on the alliance board.

But, he said, they received no response, despite Abbott’s assurances last week that he was working with bar owners on a plan for reopening.

“Zero communication from the governor’s office,” Barrineau said. “The governor and the governor's office is not talking to us at all. He's just ignoring us, leaving us hanging out to dry, dry up and go away.”

Now Barrineau said he’s spending nearly $1,000 on a permit to turn his bar into a restaurant. But not every bar owner is able or willing to pay that price.

The frustration was felt across Houston, as bar owners took to social media to express their frustration at the perceived lack of consideration for their businesses. On Instagram, Heights bar Johnny’s Gold Brick said it would continue selling cocktails to go, and that they were working on their permitting in order to reopen.

But the post also lamented that just because a bar serves food doesn’t make it more safe from COVID-19.

“I know that lots of people are suffering way more from this, but man, it is hard to stand there and watch the business that you have poured your heart and soul into for the last five years be slowly bled to death, to watch the rules randomly change, to be given no guidance or timeline, to be denied by your insurance, and now be told to spend another $1000 on a food permit with a wink and a nod is tough,” the post read.

Contact tracers around the state identified bars as a prime spreader of the coronavirus when Texas saw a spike in cases in July. Now, at least 51% of sales at bars have to be food or non-alcoholic drinks to remain open.

But the new rules may not even make a difference to those restaurants allowed to expand capacity, according to Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

“Even though we can reach up to the 75% occupancy, with the 6-foot or 4-foot barrier requirements, it really limits how many folks we can get into a dining space,” Stewart told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen on Monday.

Restaurants not only have to deal with fewer patrons, but also with increased costs related to COVID-19 safety, such as personal protective equipment, Stewart added.

Ultimately, the pandemic looks to change the way all food and beverage businesses operate in the future.

"We think that there's going to be smaller dining rooms, in some instances, because of the increase in delivery and takeout for some restaurants,” Stewart said. “We'll be working with our state legislators and Gov. Abbott to permanently make alcohol-to-go an option.”