Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that bars in Texas can reopen for in-person service next week — as long as their county governments choose to allow it.
Effective Oct. 14, bars in counties that opt in will be able to resume in-person service at 50% capacity, though all customers must be seated while eating or drinking. The governor will impose no outdoors capacity limits on bars or similar establishments.
"It is time to open them up," Abbott said in a Facebook video. "If we continue to contain COVID, then these openings, just like other businesses, should be able to expand in the near future."
But soon after Abbott's announcement, the state's two most populous counties indicated they would not go along with the reopening plan. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said on Twitter that he "will not file to open them at this time," noting that "our numbers are increasing." Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement that "indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now, and this applies to bars, as well."
In addition to bars being allowed to reopen, businesses currently limited to 50% capacity may now expand to 75% capacity — including establishments like movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo halls and amusement parks.
But Abbott said in his order that bars in regions of the state with high hospitalizations for coronavirus won't be able to reopen. He defined those regions as areas where coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of hospital capacity.
"It is time to open up more, provided that safe protocols continue to be followed," Abbott said. "If everyone continues the safe practices, Texas will be able to contain COVID and we will be able to reopen 100%."
The announcement drew mixed reviews from bar owners. Some applauded the step, while others complained that Abbott left the power in the hands of counties.
"The truth is we remain closed until someone else makes the decision to open us up based on whatever parameters they deem appropriate — data, politics, personal animus, you name it," said Michael Klein, president of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. "Abbott has forced 254 other people to make this decision for him with no guideposts as to how to make that decision. He's officially passed the buck."
Klein predicted that most urban counties, where the majority of his organization's members are located, will not reopen.
During different phases of the pandemic, Abbott has taken different approaches for how much power to give local authorities. When the virus first reached Texas, he deferred to local officials, and many issued their own versions of stay-at-home orders. A month later, the governor was overseeing the reopening of the state — and in the process blocked local governments from being able to implement stronger restrictions, such as requiring people to use masks while in public.
Abbott's decision comes just days after he teased in a tweet that he would soon allow "more openings" of Texas businesses, ending the message with the word "Cheers!" and including an image of two beer mugs clinking. He wrote in the tweet that the spread of the coronavirus and number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 "remain contained."
He emphasized again on Wednesday that the seven-day average for the positivity rate, the number of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and fatalities have "remained steady" since his last reopening announcement last month. At that announcement, Abbott said that restaurants could increase to 75% capacity, though bars remained shuttered. The governor has previously referred to bars as "COVID-spreading locations" and said that case numbers in the state would need to be further contained before they could open.
After shutting down dine-in service on March 19, Abbott allowed bars to reopen — with capacity limits — on May 22. In late June, as cases soared in Texas, Abbott ordered the bars to once again shutter their doors, expressing regret for opening them too quickly.
"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," he said during an interview with KVIA-TV in El Paso at the time.
Spread of the coronavirus in bars and nightclubs — where typical nights can include mingling among strangers, singing along to loud music, shouting and dancing on a packed dance floor — has been widely documented throughout the U.S.
To try to contain the spread of the virus in bars, the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance came out with its own proposed guidelines at the end of August. Part of those guidelines included limiting indoor occupancy to 50% of capacity, conducting temperature checks at the door and requiring servers to wear masks. It also banned dance floors and mingling between groups.
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it is working with county governments to provide guidelines to both local officials and businesses. And other industry groups were quick to laud Abbott's reopening announcement.
"We're grateful for Gov. Abbott [for] addressing the economic crisis facing our small businesses," said Patrick Whitehead, the president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association and a Texas Winery PAC board member. "We've made clear that our businesses can safely reopen, and we're grateful for the opportunity to throw open our doors once again to Texans ready to taste and buy Texas wines."
Others in the industry were surprised by the governor's announcement. Spencer Whelan, the executive director of the Texas Whiskey Association, said that while he had seen Abbott's tweets, he hasn't received any official communication from his office since March. He's worried the order won't go far enough in helping distilleries rebound after being closed for months.
"While reopening tasting rooms will hopefully increase the foot traffic, we hope that the state continues to examine restrictions that are preventing contactless revenue options for distilleries,” he said.
The Texas Democratic Party, meanwhile, said it was too soon to safely reopen more businesses.
"We're in this mess because Trump lies and Abbott keeps rolling back health and safety policies too early," said Executive Director Manny Garcia. "Hardworking families have held their breaths, waiting for Trump and Abbott to make smart policy decisions. Now, as Texas continues to rank first in the country in new cases, Abbott has proven that he is dead set on making the same mistakes again."
While Abbott is correct that key metrics, including the number of new cases and the number of new hospitalizations, have remained steady in recent weeks, they still exceed the levels when Abbott first relaxed restrictions in May.
There were 3,519 people in Texas hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, more than double the number of people in hospitals on May 22 when bars first reopened, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. Likewise, the statewide seven-day positivity rate —the proportion of COVID-19 tests that come back positive — remains above 6%. The World Health Organization recommends a rate below 5% before governments ease restrictions.
Public health experts fear reopening too quickly could lead the virus to spread widely — as it did this summer.
"I do believe reopening bars at this point carries significant risk for increasing cases of COVID-19 and increasing transmission," said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health.
"I can understand the economic need to reopen these types of businesses," she added, "but the business owners and their patrons have to be able to demonstrate and enforce responsible behaviors or we will be right back where we were previously, and could potentially have to shut them down again."
Mark Escott, Austin Public Health's interim health authority, suggested earlier Wednesday that bars might be able to open "with substantial modifications." But he cautioned that "the evidence that we have regarding methods of transmission in our community strongly points to social gatherings."
El Paso on Wednesday reported nearly 400 new COVID-19 cases and 207 people hospitalized for the virus, the first time hospitalizations surpassed 200 people since Aug. 11.
"Our numbers are steadily climbing," said Ryan Mielke, public affairs director for the University Medical Center of El Paso. "We are now at inpatient hospitalization levels last seen in July. However, we currently have ample [protective gear] and capacity for more patients, should they need care.”
Hospitalizations in North Texas are also on the rise. W. Stephen Love, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, told The Texas Tribune last week that the region had seen increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations for the past seven to 10 days.
"We are certainly not at the higher volumes experienced in the summer, but we are closely watching because we are moving to increased volumes and want people to please wear masks, physical distance and wash hands plus get a flu shot," Love said.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.