Local bars struggle as state shutters them, again

TEXAS — Last Friday, Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars closed immediately, with restaurants told to reduce their dining capacity back to 50% by Monday. The latest ratcheting down on bars, restaurants and tubing and rafting companies comes as coronavirus has gained new footing in Texas.

The Lost Horse, a local watering hole that makes more than 51% of its revenue from alcohol, had been shut since March 19, when the governor issued a mandatory order to close businesses including bars.

Then the Lone Star State threw open its doors in May, initiating its “reopening” with successive phases every couple weeks that eventually allowed restaurants, bars, retail and entertainment spots to open with various restrictions that lessened over time.

On May 22, the saloon swung its doors open, in hopes of getting business back on its feet. Owner Ty Mitchell bought sanitizer and sneeze guards, and issued social distancing rules for patrons. He bought plenty of alcohol, and hoped the reopening would bring in revenues to cover rent, utilities, payment for employees and an alcohol sales tax bill that was due soon.

But as cases surged at the end of June and Texas became the state with the fourth highest number of cases – behind New York, California and New Jersey – Governor Greg Abbott reeled back on his reopening plan.

“Closing down businesses will always be the last option,” Abbott said in a June 22 press conference. Four days later, Abbott closed bars.

“It’s pretty bad,” said Mitchell. “I’m sitting on about $5,000 of inventory that I just purchased the day before that I can’t sell.” The whiplash of reopening and then closing again is hitting bar owners who were already struggling from lost business.

In his executive order, GA-28, the governor closed bars (of which alcohol makes up more than 51% of their sales) immediately, allowing them to return to takeout and delivery for food and pre-packaged alcohol rules from earlier in the pandemic. Restaurants were to reduce from 75% capacity back down to 50% capacity indoors starting Monday.

Abbott expressed regret in a local television interview, saying, “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 went as far as to say bar environments stoke the spread of the virus.

In Presidio, The Trading Post is doing its best to sell food while its bar is closed, according to bar manager Hiram Carrera. “The food sales are happening, but if that changes then we’ll probably go under,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can like everybody else. Everybody tries to find other ways if they’re not operational.”

The Trading Post was operating its restaurant and bar when bars were permitted to reopen, but this week they have returned to only offering food to go, “since the numbers have gone up the past few weeks,” Carrera said. He admits that as a smaller operation, “It hasn’t been too crazy for us. It sucks, but at this point it is what it is.”

For Mitchell and The Lost Horse, “I didn’t open that business to get on the government tit. I don’t want a handout, I want to work.” During their first round of closure, the bar offered “Better Time Vouchers” which translated to a donation now that would be repaid in full with a bar tab in your name later.

But the second closure could devastate the business. Will they reopen? “I hope yes, I’m betting no,” said Mitchell. “You can’t run a business if the government can take away a quarter or more of the year, at their whim, whenever they want. You can’t have a working business plan wrapped around that kind of stupidity.”

During the second closure, Mitchell said he won’t be offering vouchers, wondering if he’ll ever be able to reopen and fulfill them. If the bar doesn’t survive, Mitchell said he plans to buy back every unused voucher, not wanting “handouts” from individuals or the government.

He feels bars have been unfairly targeted, since gatherings of 100 are still permitted in counties, but gatherings at bars are not. Even with the reduction of capacity for restaurants, they had a few days to adjust before the law went into effect. For bars, they had until noon that day. “I don’t wish ill on anyone, I wish all of them were open, but the hotels can sell booze and food and all that and play the same game.”

“This time I’m not going to open at 25 or 50%, because it just loses money for that month and they already proved they can shut me down whenever they want,” Mitchell said. “Until I can open like I ought to be open, I’m not playing their game.”