Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced that the state’s bars will be allowed to reopen Friday at 25% capacity and restaurants can increase their capacity to 50%.
The announcement comes as part of the second phase of Abbott’s plan to reopen the state’s economy. Local bars have been shut down since March 17, when the city of Austin and Travis County issued twin orders meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The capacity limits do not apply to patio areas, which will be allowed full seating as long as tables are spread at least six feet apart.
Wine tasting rooms, brewery tasting rooms and any establishment licensed by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and not considered a restaurant can reopen at limited capacity under the order.
The state issued guidelines for businesses and patrons in tandem with the governor’s announcement. Patrons at bars will not be allowed to order at the bar or linger in common areas and can only receive service while seated at a table. Tables can seat a maximum of six people and will be required to be spaced six feet apart, and guests are required to keep the same distance from other groups in a bar’s common areas. Dancing is discouraged.
The minimum health standards protocol checklist released by the state also asks the employers train all employees and contractors on appropriate cleaning, disinfection, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette; screen employees and contractors before coming into the bar or similar establishment; send home any employee or contractor who has new or worsening signs or symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus; and prevent employees and contractors who’ve shown symptoms or tested positive from returning to work until they meet certain timeline criteria regarding symptoms and test results. The guidelines from the state also include safety protocols regarding sanitization of workers and spaces.
Jason Carrier, whose Carmack Concepts owns and operates four bars in Texas, including two locations of the Dogwood in Austin, is excited about the opportunity to welcome customers back to his bars after two month of no income.
The owners have taped off the bar area to make sure nobody tries to order from the bar and separated all of their tables by six feet or labeled them as reserved. They will have a dedicated "hall monitor" at the bars who will go around and "pleasantly enforce social distancing" to ensure safety.
Reopening to 25% capacity might leave the bars still operating at a loss still, but Carrier says the financial hit would be much worse if they stay closed, making the decision to reopen an easy one.
"Like all small business owners, we risk a lot when we open our small businesses, and you’re dodging landmines left and right," Carrier said. "You risk your family’s life savings, and to have it slowly slip away by something out of your own control is a terrifying thing. But it makes it a little better knowing that many of us are in it together. But it’s also equally scary because it’s uncharted territory."
Before the closure of bars, Dogwood averaged about 30 employees per location, and Carrier says he imagines they will probably carry about half of that staff when they reopen, with some incentivized by stimulus money and unemployment to stay home.
Carrier, whose company also owns two bars in Houston, understands that the public response to the reopening of bars will be mixed and adds that it’s important for individuals on all sides of the equation to remain educated and utilize good personal judgment.
"I think some people are still wary, understandably, and I think some people are ready to get back to their regular lives. In Austin, I sense a little bit more hesitancy than in Houston. In Houston, it’s much more bursting at the seams of people wanting to get back to their routines."
Some bars took to their social media accounts to announce that they would be reopening. Those planning to welcome guests Friday include the Wonder Bar at the Domain Rock Rose, and the Brass Tap at the Domain.
"We’ve spent the past two months cleaning, renovating, and sanitizing our bar," the Brass Tap posted on Facebook. "We have deeply missed our staff and our patrons and look forward to having you all back. With the health and safety of our staff and guests in mind, we have implemented numerous safety procedures including screening employees before every shift and requiring them to wear face masks. We’ve also installed hand sanitizing stations."
But not all bar owners intend to reopen immediately, despite the announcement form Abbott.
"I dont think it's responsible to reopen bars right now," Steve Sternschein of Heard Entertainment, which owns the downtown clubs Empire Control Room & Garage and the Parish, told the American-Statesman. "I have been listening to the scientific community and medical folks and without more certainty it's just not worth the risk. Things like nail salons and sit-down dining don’t have the same issues as a crowded bar. If it’s not crowded, we don’t make enough money to cover rent. We would be running over 50% in the red, even with staff reductions, to just have 20-50 people in the rooms."
Josh Loving, who co-owns intimate cocktail bar Small Victory on East Seventh Street, which has a posted capacity of 49 people, echoed Sternschein’s decision.
"Until there’s treatment that has efficacy and or a vaccine, I just don’t think the risk is worth a cocktail bar experience. Without even getting into the health care moral part of it, and this is just my opinion, I don’t see enjoying a cocktail bar experience" during the pandemic, Loving said. "It is designed for the exact opposite of the coronavirus. It’s meant to be packed with people shoulder to shoulder. It’s at its best when it’s full and cozy."
While Loving has no intention of reopening his cocktail bar anytime soon, he says he and his partners are discussing ways in which they can start providing curbside takeout service.
Deborah Sengupta-Stith contributed to this report. This is a developing story; check back for updates.
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