Brewster County moves to reopen bars

TRI-COUNTY — Bars in Texas are seating customers again. In executive orders last week, Governor Greg Abbott said he would soon allow bars to reopen at 50% capacity. Other service businesses like movie theaters and bowling alleys will also see expanded capacity limits of 75%.

The order went into effect this Wednesday, October 14. While Governor Abbott’s statewide mask rules allowed county governments to opt out if they met certain requirements, these orders require county officials to opt in to reopen bars.

The governor initially closed bars along with other businesses on March 19, as information about the spreading virus was just coming to light. In late May, he authorized their reopening, but as Texas cases soon ticked up, he expressed regret on opening them, and closed them again.

The governor’s latest rules for reopening bars come with stipulations. In order to opt in at all, counties must be in a state hospital “trauma service area” where 15% or fewer of the hospitalizations over the past week have been for COVID-19. In “trauma service area J,” which is home to a wide swath of counties including the tri-county and the Midland-Odessa area, hospitals hit 6.72% of hospitalizations for COVID-19, still below the threshold.

Absent a big change — a spike in local hospitalizations, for instance, or more up-to-date state numbers — it does appear that Brewster, Presidio and Jeff Davis counties could reopen bars if they chose to do so. At press time, the Texas Department of State Health Services was listing just one trauma service area where counties can’t apply to opt-in. “Trauma Service Area I,” encompassing nearby El Paso, had hospitalization rates for COVID-19 hit 17.72% on Tuesday.

In Jeff Davis County, the issue around bars is a moot point. The county has no bars that were affected by the closures, temporary County Judge Larry Francell said in an interview Monday.

The closest thing the county has to a bar is a bar/restaurant at the Hotel Limpia — but, as a dining establishment, it was never shuttered by Governor Abbott’s orders closing bars. And besides, Francell said he already had confidence that Limpia had adequate precautions in place and was handling the coronavirus well.

“I think he’s doing this right,” Francell said of owner Charles Mallory and precautions at the Limpia. “Why should we get involved?”

The story is similar in Marfa. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, the town had two establishments that technically qualified as bars: House Bar on the west side of town, and Lost Horse on the east. House Bar has been closed more-or-less continuously throughout the coronavirus crisis.

As for Lost Horse, it was closed by state orders earlier this year — but then a new owner bought it and revamped the bar’s food menu. That allowed Lost Horse to reopen earlier this summer, technically as a food establishment.

The situation isn’t much different in Presidio, either. Presidio residents have been working to rehab the local VFW with the goal of eventually offering bar service, but that hasn’t happened yet, Presidio Mayor John Ferguson said in an interview on Tuesday.

The closest thing Presidio has to a bar is the Trading Post, where before the crisis residents often gathered in the evening for beers and billiards. But the Trading Post, which serves chicken wings and other fare, also technically qualifies as a food establishment, according to Ferguson. And while the bar’s patio has reopened, these days it’s also offering takeout orders.

And so, as in Jeff Davis County, it’s unclear whether these laxer bar rules would have any effect for drinking establishments in Presidio County. Regardless, County Judge Cinderela Guevara was skeptical about the prospect of reopening bars when reached for comment.

In an interview on Friday, Judge Guevara said she hadn’t yet read the full order and didn’t want to make any final decisions before speaking to county commissioners and to Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the Presidio County health authority. But as she saw it, reopening bars was a bad idea.

“Right off the bat, for myself, I think no,” Guevara said of the prospect of adopting these laxer rules in Presidio County. “When people drink alcohol they relax. They forget [precautions]. This is a pandemic.”

That leaves Brewster County — where Alpine, the county seat and largest city, does have bars affected by state bar closures earlier this year.

Still, many of those bars have also been able to stay open by offering food. At a Brewster County Commissioners Court meeting on Wednesday, County Judge Eleazar Cano estimated around 80% of the bars in the county had already reopened “because of the food rules.”

Despite the recent rise in case numbers across the tri-county, Brewster County does technically meet the requirements to opt-in to the expanded reopening rules. And at the commissioners court meeting, Cano described opting in as “a formality” rather than a choice for county officials.

“I am going to be signing off on this,” Cano said of the new rules. He told commissioners there was no need to hold a vote.

In larger Texas cities like Houston and Dallas, where the  state orders have shut countless bars, judges have expressed skepticism about the rules. After the new order was announced, Lina Hidalgo, the county judge for Houston’s Harris County, said that “indoor, maskless gathering should not be taking place right now,” the Texas Tribune reported. She added, “This applies to bars, as well.”

Likewise, in Dallas County, Judge Clay Jenkins said that he did not plan to “file to open [bars] at this time.” After all, he noted, “our numbers are increasing.”

In deciding to opt-in to the order, Cano outlined some of this thinking. “The recovery rate is high,” he said of coronavirus. “I’m not saying it’s not serious, but I think we have to be logical and reasonable in our expectations.”

“At the end of the day,” Cano added, “it’s up to the people to be responsible.”