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Don’t look now, but COVID numbers are ticking up again

In the state as a whole.

Texas reported more than 4,100 people hospitalized with the coronavirus on Wednesday, its largest total in six weeks and one that comes amid rising infections in El Paso and North Texas.

Hospitalizations hit a low in late September after a summer surge, but have risen incrementally for the past 10 days, reaching 4,133 on Wednesday. Other key metrics were also up slightly from a week earlier, including the reported rolling average of new daily infections and the number of people testing positive for the virus.

Public health officials said the increase is likely due to a combination of factors, including pandemic fatigue and expanded reopenings, especially bars. Bars were only allowed to begin reopening in select counties on Wednesday, but many have already been opened for weeks after reclassifying as restaurants — a loophole that the state created in hopes it would lead to better social distancing.

[…]

The biggest increases appear to be in West Texas and areas in and around Dallas.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins raised the county’s pandemic risk level back to red on Wednesday, and earlier this week Gov. Greg Abbott sent medical staff and supplies to El Paso to help respond to a wave of new COVID-19 cases.

“With a new and quickly escalating wave of COVID-19 cases hitting North Texas, it is more important than ever that we make good decisions,” Jenkins tweeted.

And here in the Houston area.

Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, trending in a positive direction for the last couple months, have taken a turn for the worse.

Four key coronavirus metrics all show an increase in the past week, according to the Texas Medical Center, which tracks the data for the complex’s seven major hospital systems. Those numbers had started trickling up the previous week in daily reports produced by the center.

The latest numbers from Wednesday’s report:

• The number of COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday, 671, represents a 62 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 412 cases per day.

• The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to TMC hospitals Tuesday, 102, represents an 18 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 86 patients per day.

• The TMC COVID-19 test positivity rate of 3.8 percent represents an 8 percent over last week’s daily average.

• The so-called R(t), or reproduction rate, the rate at which the virus is spreading, hit 1.16 Tuesday, an 18 percent increase in the past week. On Sept. 29, the number was 0.64, which meant the virus’ spread was then decreasing significantly.

The latest metric is probably the most concerning to health officials. A number below 1.0 means the virus is burning out in the area; a number above 1.0 means the spread is accelerating. After 32 consecutive days in which the metric showed the virus was burning out in the Houston area, it now shows the virus is again picking up steam.

And as was the case in the month of June, it’s already too late to stop this. The best we can do now is go back to what we had been doing before to bend the curve back in the downward direction. First and foremost, wear your goddamn masks, and practice social distancing. Don’t be this guy.

As for bars, I want them to survive, and I’ve been up front about the arbitrariness of the state’s definition of what a “bar” is versus what a “restaurant” is. I support the various ways that have been suggested to help bars survive by being more like restaurants, and by enabling to-go and outdoor service. And we really need a federal rescue bill for bars and restaurants and theaters and music halls and other public-gathering businesses that have been so devastated by this pandemic. But we have to be real and recognize that there are no circumstances under which crowding a bunch of people into indoor spaces is a good idea. How many times are we going to have to learn this lesson? The Trib has more.

Abbott to allow bars to reopen

Sort of. It’s kind of the most Abbott thing ever.

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.

You can add Bexar County to that “no bars yet” list as well. There’s a very good reason why most counties will likely decline this invitation from Abbott:

You have to admire Abbott’s consistent strategy of making local officials be the ones who have to make the tough decisions – when he lets them – and otherwise grabbing the power and glory for himself. Naturally, Republican-led counties are all over this, so be sure to keep an eye on the infection rates in places like Montgomery over the next month. To be sure, many bars have been able to operate with various workarounds as restaurants. And for things like outdoor service and to-go service, I support all that. It’s not enough for most bars, and the best thing we could have done about that is allocate a bunch of federal money to help them all – bars, breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants, music clubs, hotels, you name it – get through this, to the point where the disease is under control and it is safe for everyone to gather again. Abbott and his buddies were never really interested in any of that, though, so here we are. I feel like I’ve said this before, but I sure hope this works out. I don’t expect that it will, but I hope so anyway.

UPDATE: At least initially, only Denton County among the ten most populous counties will go forward with bar reopenings.

Bar owners still mad at Abbott

Can’t blame them, but the situation is complicated.

As Gov. Greg Abbott outlined his latest reopening plan this week, bar owner Greg Barrineau watched in disbelief. Abbott, who announced that Texas restaurants could expand dine-in service to 75% capacity, said bars must remain closed.

“Some bars and their associations have offered some very helpful ideas,” Abbott said of reopening, “and we will continue to work with them on that process.”

But Barrineau, who has laid off his 12 staff members and suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses at Drink Texas, a bar with locations in San Antonio and Boerne, said that assertion of collaboration is “insanity — he doesn’t care about small businesses.”

Michael Klein, the head of Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance, which represents thousands of bars, said that Abbott’s statement about working together was “incorrect,” carefully choosing his words. The TBNA laid out a six-point plan to reopen in August, but Klein said the governor, whom he referred to strictly as “anti-business Abbott,” has not responded to the plan.

“We’ve never heard back from them,” Klein said. “We believe that he is disingenuous.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

While restaurant owners applauded Abbott’s move to allow them to increase operations, Klein said Thursday’s ruling was “completely unacceptable” for many bars and other facilities where alcohol sales make up more than half of the revenue. It could leave 30% of Texas bars and 39% of distilleries permanently closed within six months, industry leaders said.

[…]

Spread from conventional bars and nightclubs has been widely documented throughout the U.S., and infectious disease experts caution going inside establishments that don’t follow social distancing protocols.

Kristin Mondy, chief of the infectious disease division in the University of Texas at Austin’s medical school, said there is increased risk in spreading the virus if strangers mingle in a tight, closed space, especially as drinking could cause bar customers to loosen their inhibitions.

Klein said the industry’s plan would reduce those issues by complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements.

Some of the requirements in TBNA’s plan include ensuring all patrons are seated at their own tables, barring dance floors and mingling among groups, requiring face masks for all servers and customers when not at their tables, and conducting temperature checks upon entry. Mondy said these procedures could help as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are enforced.

[…]

Cord Switzer, who has helped run Fredericksburg Winery for almost 25 years with his family, said he has been able to technically and legally become a food server — but no one that comes is actually eating the food. That’s not why they go to a winery, he said.

“It makes no sense to me,” Switzer said. “We have never been interested in being in the food service business. We have no intent of doing that in the future, but it was our only choice.”

Switzer started wine tastings on Saturday for the first time in two months and hopes to begin recouping his losses after making 30% of last year’s revenue. But he doesn’t understand the governor’s categorization, and industry advocates share Switzer’s confusion.

“Texas winery owners continue to be perplexed by Governor Abbott’s steadfast refusal to recognize that the lion’s share of Texas alcohol manufacturer’s tasting rooms have little, if anything, in common with bars and nightclubs,” said Patrick Whitehead, the president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, in an email. “Governor Abbott’s arbitrary, and frankly unfair, act of lumping our tasting rooms into the category of bars is like a surgeon operating with a chainsaw rather [than] a scalpel.”

Switzer’s money troubles are not unique; nearly half of distilleries surveyed by the Texas Whiskey Association have experienced revenue losses greater than 60%. Spence Whelan, the head of the association, which represents distilleries across Texas, said continued restrictions could be disastrous for the industry, which normally relies on a big fourth quarter in holiday sales to stay afloat. This fall, with little or no visitors, that could be wiped out. Under Texas law, whiskey distilleries cannot ship or deliver whiskey directly to customers, nor can they sell more than two bottles of whiskey per person.

At the very least, Whelan said, those rules should be relaxed. Many places don’t want to open yet anyway, and there are other ways to bring in money. He said the industry has sent more than 15,000 letters to the governor’s office asking to waive those restrictions and has received no response.

Let’s acknowledge that bars are a high-risk environment for COVID-19, and the reopening of bars in May was a significant contributor to the subsequent outbreaks that swept the state in June and July. We should also acknowledge that there’s evidence that the reopening of restaurants, even at lower capacities, is also a risk factor in spreading COVID-19. The bar owners’ complaint – and wineries’, and distilleries’, and craft breweries’ – is that Abbott has been particularly rigid about how these risks are categorized, and has been unresponsive to any input that would allow these entities to operate in a lower-risk fashion.

I have a lot of sympathy for these complaints. Some bars have been able to reopen by creative interpretation of the 51% rule, by incorporating to-go service, and by a recent rule change that lets them have food trucks on their premises. But this doesn’t work for every bar, it imposes extra costs on them, and it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of their business. The only good thing that may come out of it is the expanded allowance for to-go service, and maybe if we’re very lucky a broader rethinking of our antiquated regulatory scheme for alcohol. I don’t know how effective the risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed by the various industry groups would be, but we could study them and try the ones that comply with known best practices. We could surely let the places that have ample outdoor space like wineries and craft breweries with beer gardens take advantage of those spaces (to some extent we already are permitting this), and we could make allowances for those that have large and well-ventilated indoor spaces where social distancing would work. And, you know, Abbott and Dan Patrick could put a little pressure on the two Republican Senators to support a relief bill in Congress that included funds for bars and other places that rely heavily on alcohol sales (such as music halls) that just can’t be allowed to reopen right now. Abbott has done none of this, and as noted in the story has been repeatedly unwilling to engage in any discussion about it.

So this is both a legitimate set of concerns by members of a significant sector of the Texas economy, and a real opportunity for Democrats going forward. Dems don’t need to pander or reverse course on their properly-held principles about minimizing COVID risk. They just need to be willing to consider the various risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed, and to continue to push for a response from Congress that truly addresses the broad economic pain that much of the country is still experiencing. Good policy is so often good politics, and the opportunity to do both here is enormous.

From the “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” department

Who’s ready to re-reopen Texas?

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled he may be preparing to roll back some emergency restrictions put in place this summer at the height of the state’s coronavirus surge.

Responding to concerns from the battered restaurant industry, the governor tweeted Monday night that new infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are receding, and added, “I hope to provide updates next week about next steps.”

“Since my last orders in July, COVID numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations,” said Abbott, a Republican.

The governor gave no indication about what steps he might take, and a spokesman did not respond to questions. Abbott has previously said he would consider allowing bars to reopen and restaurants to open further if positive trends continue.

Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are declining, though they remain well above where where they were when Abbott began reopening the state in May — hospitalizations are now double, and average new daily infections are four times as high. It’s also unclear whether the rate of people testing positive, a key metric, is anywhere near where public health experts recommend before opening more businesses and allowing children back into schools.

What could possibly go wrong? See here for a statement from Mayor Turner, who unsurprisingly urges caution. You should also read this Politico profile of County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which I will blog about separately, and remember that at every step of the way in this crisis, Lina Hidalgo has been right and Greg Abbott has been wrong.

Food trucks and bars

I approve of this.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission approved rules Tuesday intended to make it easier for bars to legally operate as restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state agency greatly expanded rules that had already offered a limited lifeline for some bars to temporarily reclassify themselves and generate a sliver of sales during the coronavirus crisis. The goal is to provide more ways for businesses to qualify as restaurants under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order GA-28, which prohibits bars from reopening but allows restaurants to remain open at 50% capacity.

TABC’s amendments to Rule 33.5, which deals with food and beverage certificates, go into effect immediately.

The amended rules mean that bars can now reopen whether or not they have commercial-grade kitchens. Off-site food will also be allowed to be sold at the bars. This would include packaged items.

Additionally, bars will be able to more easily partner with food trucks. Sales from these food orders will be able to count toward the TABC’s rule that alcohol must account for less than 51% of the establishment’s gross revenue in order for it to open as a restaurant.

As we have discussed before, the 51% rule is more than a little arbitrary, and bars have deserved more flexibility to operate. I don’t want to downplay the risks here – you are still much better off avoiding indoor spaces and taking any food or drink to go if there isn’t an outdoor seating arrangement. If they comply with the limited capacity rules that apply to restaurants, then I favor approaches like this that let more bars be classified as restaurants, because they need the help. In the absence of federal help, this is the best we can do at this time. (To be fair, not all bar owners agree with this approach. A more serious review of the TABC’s 51% formula is still needed.) Reform Austin, the Dallas Observer, and the Current have more.

It’s still hard out here on bars and restaurants

I continue to worry about our once-thriving hospitality industry.

Hundreds of Texas bars and restaurants are scrambling to change how they operate, maneuvering through loopholes that will allow them to reopen after being closed by Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest shutdown targeting bars.

Abbott has shut bars down twice since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Texas. The first time bars were swept up in a total lockdown of statewide businesses. But the second time, on June 26, Abbott singled bars out while allowing virtually every other kind of business in Texas to stay open.

But other operations such as restaurants that sell a lot of booze, wineries and breweries were ensnared in the same order and also forced to close because alcohol sales exceeded 51% of total revenue, meaning they were classified as bars.

“Generally everyone has a common sense understanding: ‘What is a bar? And what is a restaurant?’ I think that 51% rule is so broad that it actually picks up or encompasses businesses that we would normally think of as really being restaurants,” said State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, one of more than 65 lawmakers who signed a letter asking Abbott to update his order’s definition of a restaurant.

Wray gave the example of a burger restaurant, where a patron might buy a burger and two beers. Oftentimes, the beer will cost more than the food, but that doesn’t make the restaurant a bar, he said.

Emily Williams Knight, Texas Restaurant Association president, estimates that about 1,500 restaurants ranging from steak houses to coffee shops that sell wine were “inadvertently” forced to close when Abbott shut down bars, translating to about 35,000 lost jobs in the state.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission responded to outcry from the service industry with new guidance in a July 30 notice allowing businesses to either demonstrate that they recently had less than 51% alcohol sales or use alcohol sales projections and apply for a Food and Beverage Certificate, documentation that allows them to reopen as a restaurant.

The certificate workaround requires the business to have a permanent kitchen. It allows bars and restaurants to use projected sales numbers instead of requiring past sales to determine if alcohol sales exceed food sales.

The TABC received more than 600 requests from existing businesses for Food and Beverage Certificates since Abbott’s order took place and granted about 300, according to commission spokesperson Chris Porter. Almost 90 businesses have also requested to update their alcohol sales numbers in an effort to reopen.

The Texas restaurant industry is already struggling, with Knight projecting that up to 30% of restaurants in the state could go out of business.

For those forced to shut down due to the bar order, it can be a death sentence and business owners see these changes as their last hope.

[…]

Breweries also found themselves forced to shut down by Abbott’s order, with two-thirds of Texas craft brewery owners predicting that their businesses could close permanently by the end of the year under the current closures, according to a July survey by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

Hopsquad Brewing Co., an Austin brewery, reopened as a restaurant using a Food and Beverage Certificate with an onsite food truck serving as its kitchen, General Manager Greg Henny said.

He was lucky, because the brewery already had a food truck on site, Henry said. But he thinks breweries and wineries should have their own classification separate from bars, because they operate differently.

Henny said the guidance from the TABC has been confusing and harmful to breweries. To help other businesses survive the pandemic, the agency allowed “retail and manufacturing businesses” to serve and sell alcohol in a patio or outdoor area that wasn’t part of its original designated premises, which some brewery owners took as being able to reopen.

However, the TABC later released a clarification saying that businesses with more than 51% alcohol sales were not eligible.

“The circumstances are constantly changing as a result of which way the winds are blowing with [the TABC],” he said. “It makes us feel frustrated. We’re fighting tooth and nail just to stay open, and we’ve shown time and time again that we can operate safely,” he said.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Texas Legislative Tourism Caucus chairman led the efforts behind the letter sent to Abbott asking for an updated restaurant definition.

“You’ve got a lot of these establishments — these restaurants — that are kind of in limbo just because of how much alcohol they sell,” he said. “Restaurants that have already been decimated by the first initial shutdowns with the pandemic [and] by some people’s reluctance to want to come in and eat.”

I’ve beaten this drum before, and I continue to believe that to-go food and drink rules should be as liberal as possible, the 51% rule should be greatly relaxed, all avenues for outdoor seating should be explored, craft breweries and wineries and distilleries should get a break. But let’s be real, the problem won’t be truly solved until we get the damn virus under control, and that means taking mask wearing and social distancing seriously. It would be nice if we had a functional, non-evil federal government that tried to do something to help, but that ain’t happening till January, and we don’t have that kind of time. It would also be nice to get a rescue bill for bars and restaurants passed – there are some bipartisan proposals out there – but, well, see the previous point. We have to hold on for now.

And lord knows, that ain’t easy.

Bars that offer food service are scraping by with booze to-go operations. Their counterparts without kitchens, bound by state rules, can do little but watch their coffers wither.

“We’re all looking at our bank accounts like you would at the life bar in a video game,” said Michael Neff, owner of the Cottonmouth Club downtown. “All of us are just watching that life bar everyday trying to predict how long we have until it disappears.”

The industry had barely got its legs back following the limited reopening that went into effect on May 22 when on June 26 Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state’s roughly 5,500 bars closed indefinitely. Bar owners, feeling they have been targeted, have decried what they describe as a lack of support from leaders as they square off with the coronavirus. Some have gone as far as filing suit against Abbott seeking to have the closure order overturned.

“Financially it’s just the worst you can imagine,” said Scott Repass, owner of Poison Girl in Montrose.

To be clear, Repass said, he agrees that people should not be drinking in bars right now. But he said there’s little difference between what would be happening at bars if they were open and what continues to happen at cafes and restaurants.

“If you shut down a bar, people are just going to go to a restaurant with a bar,” he said. “There’s just no logic to it, that that is safer than a bar operating at 25 percent capacity. We feel like we were scapegoated.”

I don’t agree with that. Clearly, many more people can be packed into a bar than a restaurant. Again, I’m up for drinks to go and outdoor seating, and maybe bars at 25% capacity with social distancing once we’ve got the numbers down some more, but the bars needed to be closed. Maybe if we’d stayed closed a little longer we wouldn’t have had to close them again, but it was right to close them. All that said, I do agree with this:

Lindsay Rae Burleson, who opened Two Headed Dog with her business partner before the pandemic hit, has been working since March at a Houston distillery making hand sanitizer to make ends meet.

The bar’s fate is uncertain, she said. Government-backed loans have run out, and she decided not to renew her insurance, which would require a substantial downpayment on Aug. 1.

Losing the bar for good would strap her with a debt so large, “it doesn’t even feel like a real number.”

“I worked nine years to get this bar,” the longtime bartender said. “I put everything I had in. I haven’t got a cent of salary, yet.”

Artisan bars and neighborhood ice boxes are part of Houston’s fabric, she said. But now the city is barreling toward a reality in which only the chains may survive.

“That’s not a city I want to live in,” she said. “That’s not a city I want to be a tourist at.”

We’ve gotta beat the virus. We can’t have our nice things until we do. Tell the Senate to pass that $3 trillion bill the House passed back in May to ease people’s financial burden until then, and then work on a bill specifically to help bars and restaurants. It’s a whole lot easier if we let it be.

The economic effect of losing college football this fall

I have some sympathy, but I also have some skepticism.

Texas’ five major conference football teams – Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin — are massive economic drivers for their cities of Waco, Fort Worth, College Station, Lubbock and Austin, respectively, generating a flood of seasonal business for hotels, restaurants and bars in a typical year.

Economists and city leaders said canceling football would be devastating to local businesses that rely on the huge influxes of cash from home games.

“Forgoing even a single game costs the economy millions,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco economist and CEO of The Perryman Group. “Dealing with the health crisis is essential and must be given paramount priority, but the economic costs of restricting or eliminating college sports are very high.”

[…]

Doug Berg, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, said towns like Lubbock and College Station would feel the impact of lost game day revenue more than larger cities like Austin with its more diversified business base.

Still, UT-Austin reported in 2015 it had a local economic impact of more than $63 million per home game.

A bigger proportion of municipal budgets in smaller towns is derived from sales and hotel occupancy taxes – both of which typically experience significant hikes during football season. For college towns, “it’s like losing Christmas,” Berg said.

The toll of losing football is “larger than we care to fathom,” said Eddie McBride, president of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

One typical home game at Texas Tech, with an average attendance of about 60,000 people, pours “millions of dollars” back into the city of Lubbock, McBride said.

“We do count a lot on football,” McBride said. “It isn’t just sold seats…it’s going to people’s houses and buying food and drinks from the local grocery store and the beer store, and then going to the bars and the restaurants to watch the game.”

As we now know, the Big 12 will be playing football this fall, though what the situation with fans in the stands will be remains unclear. That’s not great for the Lubbocks and Wacos, but it’s not the worst case scenario, either. I can believe that Game Day is an economic boon in these smaller cities, but I’m way too skeptical of this type of financial forecasting to take the gloom and doom too seriously. The pattern is always big statements up front about what will or may happen, then no followup after the event in question to say what did happen. I’ve just been conditioned by too many of these in the past to take them at face value.

I mean sure, there will be fewer people visiting Lubbock and Waco on these Saturdays, and that will undoubtedly mean fewer hotel rooms rented and less beer consumed. That adds up to something, whatever it may actually be. One might speculate that the savings from fewer people catching COVID-19 as a result of this lessened activity balances this out. Maybe Ray Perryman can work up a spreadsheet on that.

Restaurants may get to use parking lot space for dining

I like this idea.

Restaurants in Houston, currently limited by 50% indoor capacity limits, may soon be able to serve diners in parking lots to accommodate more guests.

Pending a vote by the Houston City Council, a “More Spaces” plan developed by Houston’s Chief Transportation Officer David Fields would allow restaurants to convert 50% of off-street parking spots to dining spaces.

The ability to make such conversions would allow restaurants to serve more guests in an open-air environment that limits the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than dining indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. The efforts mirror that of other cities, such as Austin and Atlanta.

Restaurant owners would not need to apply for the authority to do so; instead, they would file a notification with the city so that the planning department can track restaurants’ compliance with the new protocols. The proposal prohibits music in the adapted outdoor dining areas and limits closing hours to no later than midnight. Participating restaurants must also ensure that ADA-accessible parking spaces remain available.

If enacted, the policy will only remain in place under coronavirus emergency orders, but it could serve as a test period for future efforts.

“I think we could learn a lot from this pilot in the immediate term and go back out to the industry and the community and show what we have learned,” Fields said.

I know, eating outdoors on a concrete or asphalt surface in July and August may not sound appealing, but fall is coming, plenty of dining hours are as or after the sun goes down, and I’m sure the restaurants themselves can figure out what will work for them. The point here is that outdoor is safer than indoor, and this will add capacity to restaurants that are currently limited to fifty percent of their indoor capacity. Their parking lots are already underutilized, so why not give them some options? It can’t hurt to try.

Beer gardens get jerked around

First, we had this.

Saint Arnold Brewing announced Monday that it will temporarily close its beer garden and restaurant. The reason? Gov. Greg Abbott’s office ruled it is a bar, not a restaurant, and therefore should close according to the latest coronavirus shutdown guidelines.

As a response to the surge in virus cases in Texas, the governor backtracked on his reopening plan, ordering bars to close again on June 29. As most restaurants sell alcohol and most bars sell food, the state’s delineation between the two is a “51 percent rule”: if a venue’s alcohol sales make up 51 percent or more of its total revenue, it is considered a bar.

Brock Wagner, Saint Arnold’s founder and brewer, got a call from a local Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) agent on Friday, saying they had received a complaint that Saint Arnold had reopened in violation of the current pandemic orders. When calculating the brewery’s sales breakdown, the governor’s office took into account the beer Saint Arnold sells to its distributors. In addition to its on-premise operations, the Houston brewery has a solid retail presence across Texas and in Louisiana, producing about 70,000 barrels of beer last year.

“According to that, we are the world’s biggest bar,” said Wagner. He believes this ruling defies common sense, as it does not distinguish beer sold to distributors for retail purposes from a beer sold at the restaurant to a customer.

Wagner tried to appeal the decision and contact the governor’s team over the weekend, but was unsuccessful. The brewery announced the closure on Monday. (The governor’s office did not return a request for comment by press time.)

Saint Arnold is back to doing curbside and drive-through sales only; the shutdown of dine-in operations will result in lost jobs.

“They claim that they want to be opening Texas and keeping people at work,” said Wagner. “Instead there’s decisions like this, which are going to eliminate 75 jobs if we don’t get this reversed.”

That story was from July 13. We’re familiar with the plight of the bars that serve food but not enough food for them to be classified as restaurants. This is an arbitrary distinction, one that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s having a bad effect on a lot of craft breweries. But then it looked like there was a breakthrough last week:

You still may not sit down in a bar for a drink, but you may be able to get served at a Texas brewery or other retail alcohol establishment and then sit down at an outdoor patio to enjoy your drink, provided social distancing is followed.

In a decision issued with little fanfare late last week, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission began allowing retail and the manufacturers of alcohol beverages, like breweries, to reopen their outdoor patios to service again.

Community Impact Newspaper in Houston reported that TABC’s decision follows a direct appeal from St. Arnold’s Brewery, which had been forced to close its beer garden under Gov. Greg Abbott’s late June order that shut down all bars that generate more than 51% of their profits from alcohol sales.

TABC did not notify the news media of the change or make a public announcement about the new order. It has apparently also not been available to answer questions from owners who are confused about qualifying for change.

Still not a reprieve for the bars that had to close their dining rooms, but something. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

Late Wednesday night, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission reversed a recent guideline change that would have let the state’s breweries reopen their patios for service.

The move is an abrupt about-face from last week, when the TABC signaled that brewers could pour product for patrons, so long as they quaffed their beers outside. Under that rule, breweries would have been clear to temporarily modify their licenses to exclude patios and beer gardens from their on-site premises, the Houston Chronicle reports.

However, in the latest turn, the TABC amended its guideline to say that modifying a business premises as unlicensed doesn’t exempt it from Gov. Greg Abbott’s June 26 executive order closing bars and other drinking establishments.

This is ridiculous. If we’ve decided that it’s safe for restaurants to operate at limited capacity, then it surely makes sense for outdoor patio restaurants, which is what these beer gardens are, to do so. Making a certain amount of revenue from alcohol sales should not prevent a restaurant from being treated like any other restaurant. We’re so in thrall to these ridiculous ancient laws and the all-powerful lobbies that keep them on the books that we’ve lost the plot. It just makes no sense at all. Like many businesses in Texas right now, craft breweries are having a rough time. Let’s not go out of our way to make it rougher.

UPDATE: And the pendulum has swung back in favor of beer gardens, though there are still issues with the 51% rule and the overall ability of small brewers to do their business. But it’s at least something.

There’s a lot of COVID litigation out there

Texas Lawyer surveys the landscape.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a growing subset of new business litigation in Texas: companies suing the government over shutdown orders or definitions of essential versus nonessential businesses.

One of the latest examples to make headlines was a large group of bar owners who sued Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his order that closed bars again because of the rising infection rate in the Lone Star State.

But Texas Lawyer’s research revealed that the bar litigation was at least the 15th similar lawsuit filed in the state since the onset of the pandemic in early March. It’s likely that there are even more cases filed in small or mid-sized cities in Texas.

One of the most interesting legal claims raised by this type of litigation is whether the governor has exceeded his authority under the Texas Disaster Act to suspend laws in the state, said Brad Nitschke, partner in Jackson Walker in Dallas, who has been tracking COVID-19 litigation.

“The executive is given a large toolbox to respond to emergency situations. To some extent, at least, it sort of has to be that way,” Nitschke said. “I think we are more accustomed in Texas to what that looks like for a hurricane or tornado, or a catastrophic drought.”

Using the same statute to respond to a pandemic is sort of like trying to put a square peg into a round hole, he added.

“It’s clear the governor has significant authority to act in the case of a disaster,” Nitschke said. “I think the unique circumstance of a pandemic like this one is going to give courts a chance to figure out what the outer limits of that authority may be.”

[…]

It will be tough for plaintiffs to win these sorts of cases, said Christy Drake-Adams, assistant general counsel of the Texas City Attorneys Association and the Texas Municipal League.

Drake-Adams noted that the league’s insurance risk pool has seen eight similar lawsuits against small and mid-sized Texas cities, which generally argue about the definition of essential versus nonessential businesses.

“They think they should have been allowed to continue operating, because they were an essential business,” explained Drake-Adams.

She said that government defendants who are fighting these types of lawsuits have a strong defense: That governmental immunity protects them from the claims.

“To the extent that plaintiffs are throwing in constitutional claims, I would say it’s pretty clear that the government has broad authority to act to protect the public health and to regulate in times of emergency, and that authority is expressly provided in law. It’s not clear that anyone’s constitutional rights have been violated as a result of those regulations,” Drake-Adams said.

There was a quote in there from Jared Woodfill about why the plaintiffs are right, but 1) screw that guy, and 2) we’ve heard from him plenty in the stories about each individual lawsuit he’s filed. This was the first time I’d seen an analysis from someone not connected to any of the lawsuits, though since cities or counties are the defendants in some of them, the perspective given here isn’t fully objective, either. Texas Lawyer reviewed the Hunton Andrews Kurth COVID-19 Complaint Tracker for the basis of this story; you can see media coverage of that tracker here. About half of the lawsuits involve the state (two), a state agency (one), or local governments (five), the rest are between private entities. I feel like it will be multiple years before there’s little to no litigation of interest of this nature to continue tracking.

Wineries and distilleries

I’m happy to keep beating this drum, but I’d really rather not have to.

The owners and patrons of Ironroot Republic Distillery in Denison hardly consider the business to be a bar in the traditional sense.

There’s no loud music or dancing. The doors closed at 5:30 p.m. most nights before the pandemic. On Saturdays, they closed at 3 p.m. Most of its business came from out-of-towners booking tours who wanted to sip the “World’s Best Bourbon,” as designated by the World Whiskies Awards.

Nonetheless, Ironroot Republic Distillery was shut down late last month with the rest of the bars in the state under Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order. Meanwhile, other businesses like restaurants, theme parks and bowling alleys are still open with limited occupancy. Abbott’s order required any business that gets 51% or more of its revenue from alcohol sales to close.

“We’re tourism industry businesses, we’re not bars. So they shouldn’t treat us like bars,” said Dan Garrison, owner of another tasting room, Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, a community in the Texas Hill Country.

Distillery, winery and even some restaurant owners with high alcohol sales say they are unfairly being caught in the crossfire of the statewide bar shutdown, despite running starkly different operations from those Abbott warned against when he issued his latest executive order.

“We’re all struggling to survive right now,” Garrison said. “And we’re about to lose a heck of a growing industry if the governor doesn’t do something.”

[…]

When Ironroot Republic Distillery shut down, most of the people who booked tours could no longer purchase bottles unless they were local to the area, owner Robert Likarish said. Delivering or mailing liquor to consumers isn’t allowed unless there’s a restaurant attached and the business has a mixed beverage permit.

Because it’s in a rural area, it’s been a challenge to get traffic to the distillery for curbside pickup. And even if people do come, state law only allows distilleries to sell two bottles of liquor to a customer within 30 days.

“Essentially, all the things that we’d normally do to help sell and push movement of our product are gone,” Likarish said.

Spencer Whelan, executive director of the Texas Whiskey Association, said the governor’s executive orders didn’t take into account the business models of distilleries and similar businesses.

“It was just kind of generally a wide-swath brush applied to everybody in the alcohol manufacturing industry if they had any kind of retail onsite consumption,” Whelan said.

Whelan is calling for the two-bottle limit to be waived and Sunday sales be allowed. But more than anything, he is urging Abbott to allow age-verified delivery — so that distillers can sell their products across the state.

[…]

Wineries, which often have spacious outdoor vineyards and patios where patrons can spread out, say they’re also being unfairly targeted.

“We were highly impacted by the shutdown and the pandemic just because we were forced to basically close our tasting room, which is where 90% of our sales are generated,” Lost Draw Cellars owner Andrew Sides said.

After missing out on sales in April and May — the months that typically perform best — the Fredericksburg winery reopened at the beginning of June with new rules: All tastings were moved outside, and only one group of people who came together was allowed at a time.

But then, along with bars, the winery was forced to close.

Sides said he wished that Abbott’s order had been more specific — his permit is different from bars’ permits, and people are largely taking the wine offsite to consume at home. It’s frustrating for him when other similar businesses — like a local salsa maker who allows onsite testing — can stay open.

“The whole intent for most tasting rooms and wineries is for people to come and try wine, buy it and leave,” he said.

As you know, I agree with all of this, even more so for outdoor tasting rooms. Let the places that serve food continue to serve food for pickup and delivery, and even for limited outside seating if they have it. None of that is particularly risky, and it will help a business community that really needs it. And of course, I’m all for dismantling our ridiculous system of regulations on beer and liquor. (Turns out that ridiculous anti-competitive beer distribution laws aren’t just for Texas, too.) Let the distilleries sell more bottles, and let them all sell on Sunday. It seems like some of this ought to be an easy Yes for Abbott, so I’m kind of puzzled why he’s not taken any action to help these folks. Whatever the reason, I hope they get some help before it’s too late.

Give the bars a break

I’m OK with this.

The Texas Restaurant Association has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to revise the definitions of “bar” in his recent order closing drinking establishments in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

In a letter to the governor, the TRA argues that if businesses now classified as bars but equipped with permanent kitchen facilities are allowed to reopen as restaurants, 1,500 Texas businesses could resume operation and put up to 35,000 people back to work.

Under current state rules, any establishment that makes 51% of its revenue from alcohol sales is classified as a bar, even if it serves food. The TRA’s proposed change to that definition could clear the reopening of San Antonio businesses such as Southtown fixture The Friendly Spot and brewpub Weathered Souls.

“The definition of ‘bars’ in Gov. Abbott’s executive order has inadvertently captured a lot of restaurants, requiring them to close their dining rooms, even though they were following all of the statewide health protocols for restaurants,” the TRA said in a statement accompanying the letter.

“All restaurants should be allowed to serve the public under the same health and safety standards.”

Lots of bars serve food, and as far as I’m concerned, every bar that has a kitchen ought to be able to prepare meals to go for the duration and beyond. Let them sell mixed drinks to go, too. All that qualifies as low-risk activity and should be enabled and encouraged as a sensible way to let people work without putting their health in significant jeopardy. I’m less interested in letting them open their dining rooms at this time, especially now when we’re talking about maybe having to shut down again, but for to go service they should be considered as restaurants.

You may as well mark today’s date on your calendar, because it will be a long time before I say these words again: I agree with Sid Miller.

In a July 1 letter, Miller asked Gov. Greg Abbott to amend the recent order that closed all Texas bars so that wineries and tasting rooms can reopen immediately.

Currently, wineries and tasting rooms are lumped into the same business category as bars. That’s because more than 51% of their revenue comes from the sale of alcoholic beverages.

“I am sure you will agree tasting rooms are not bars, nor do they present the same reasons for concern related to excessive alcohol intake or inability to social distance as found in a bar,” Miller writes.

The letter noted that nearly 95% of all Texas wine is sold in tasting rooms, and without that revenue, Texas winemakers may not have the ability to purchase grapes for future Hill Country vintages.

“When these wineries suffer, we lose more than just wine,” the letter continued. “The closure of these testing rooms has a damaging downstream effect on the grape producers, wineries and surrounding communities…”

I’m a bit more measured on this one, since tasting rooms are mostly going to be inside. Outdoor tasting areas should be allowed with social distancing, and indoor tasting rooms should be allowed to operate with the same basic constraints as restaurants, which is to say with a max 50% capacity right now. I believe wineries can sell their wares to go for off-premises consumption, in the way that breweries now can, but if there are any restrictions on this they should be lifted, just as all of our anachronistic and anti-consumer laws regulating beer, wine, and liquor ought to be reformed or repealed. The point here is that both of these proposals are low risk and good for both the businesses and the consumers, and we should do them. Your move, Governor.

UPDATE: Case in point.

Second lawsuit filed by bars against Abbott

This one was expected.

Several Texas bar owners filed a $10 million federal lawsuit Tuesday afternoon against Gov. Greg Abbott, in an attempt to void his executive order shutting down bars for a second time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

All of the plaintiffs are members of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. This is the second lawsuit filed against Abbott this week after more than 30 Texas bars filed a lawsuit in Travis County over his recent shutdown order on Monday.

In addition to the damages, the lawsuit asks the court to stop Abbott from enforcing his executive order which closes bars and to prevent him from issuing similar orders in the future without proper notice. The suit said Abbott should give businesses more than 24 hours notice before shutting them down, “unless in the case of imminent threat of harm.” The lawsuit also asks that future shutdown orders have a clear end date and lay out conditions that would have to be met for the order be extended.

[…]

The lawsuit noted that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission recently posted a notice on its website saying it observed a “high level of compliance” by permit holders. The lawsuit claims that Abbott is abusing his emergency powers “without proper legal notice.”

“With the erratic legal situation fueled (if not created) by the Governor and given that Plaintiffs have largely complied with the spirit & letter of the Governor’s voluntary guidelines, it came as an unfortunate surprise,” the lawsuit states.

The bar owners say in the suit that Abbott’s order violates their constitutional rights for due process, equal protection, and their patrons right to assembly, and “may very well leave long-term scarring on the republican form of government if left unchecked.”

“It wasn’t like he even reduced the bars and nightclubs to 25% — we’re closed to 100%,” said Michael Klein, one of the plaintiffs and Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance president, drawing a distinction between bars and other businesses which are allowed to operate at limited occupancies. “You better have some pretty good scientific evidence if you’re going to take one group of alcoholic beverage licenses over another, or one group of businesses.”

See here and here for the background. The Woodfill lawsuit was filed in state court and this one is in federal court, and someone who is much better versed in legal matters than I am will need to explain the reasons for that. I actually think these guys have some reasonable claims – sufficient notice, a deadline and criteria for the order, etc – though whether those claims are justiciable in federal court is a question I can’t answer. I figure both sets of plaintiffs are going to ask for an order suspending this action on Abbott’s part, and if so we’ll get some kind of rulings quickly. I have no idea what to expect, but can’t wait to see what happens.

Hey, how about trying that local control thing again?

Seems like it might be worth a shot to led Mayors and County Judges lead on coronavirus response again, since they’ve done so much better a job of leading than Greg Abbott has.

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns over hospital capacity.

Stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, were implemented to varying degrees by local governments across the state in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings to the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, writing that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings when outside a household and “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

[…]

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” they are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Here’s the Chron story; Mayor Turner has joined the call for this as well. I seriously doubt Abbott will do any of this, because it will serve as an even more stark reminder of his abject failure to lead. But if the worst is still ahead of us, then it’s a choice between taking action now and making it end sooner, or denying reality and letting more people get sick and die. Abbott’s going to have to live with the consequences of his poor decision-making regardless, he may as well choose to do the right thing this time.

Of course, there may be other complications this time around.

The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said it plans to sue the state of Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order once again shutting bars across the state.

“Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) is taking the necessary steps to protect the rights of our members and their employees across the state, who have been unjustly singled out by Governor Abbott,” TBNA president Michael E. Klein said in a statement.

[…]

TBNA said its members want to be allowed to reopen and have the same capacity allowances as restaurants, grocery stores and big-box retailers. It will sue in both state and federal court seeking to override Abbott’s order.

The majority of Texas bars had been adhering to strict guidelines restricting occupancy and ensuring safe serving practices for both customers and employees, TBNA’s Klein said. His take: if restaurants with bar rooms can operate at limited capacity, why can’t actual bars?

“To suggest the public welfare is protected by singling out one specific type of alcoholic beverage license over another is without logic and does not further the aim of protecting the public from COVID,” he added.

Well, one way to cure that disparity would be to order that all of them be closed for all except to go service. We’d also need to extend that waiver that allow restaurants to sell mixed drinks to go, which I’d be fine with. While I understand where the TBNA is coming from, this is Not Helping at a bad time. But then, given how Abbott folded on enforcing his own executive order in the Shelley Luther saga, I get why they thought taking an aggressive stance might work. Eater Austin has more.

UPDATE: Looks like the TBNA has been beaten to the punch:

Hoping to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s Friday decision ordering Texas bars to close due to a rise in coronavirus cases, more than 30 bar owners filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Abbott’s emergency order.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, was filed in Travis County District Court by Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney who has led previous legal efforts opposing Abbott’s other shutdown orders during the pandemic.

“Why does he continue unilaterally acting like a king?” Woodfill, former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, said of Abbott in an interview. “He’s sentencing bar owners to bankruptcy.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the bar owners argue that their rights have been “trampled” by Abbott, while “thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Abbott on Friday said it “is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.”

Tee Allen Parker said she is confused. As a bar owner in East Texas, she’s allowed to walk into church or a Walmart but not permitted to host patrons at Machine Shed Bar & Grill.

“I don’t think it’s right that he’s violating our constitutional rights,” Allen Parker, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Monday in an interview. “The reason I’m speaking up is I don’t like that he can’t be consistent. You lead by example. Everything he’s said he’s walked back. And I’m disappointed in him because I was a big fan of his.”

A copy of this lawsuit is here. I’ll say again, as with all of the other COVID-related lawsuits that Jared Woodfill has had his slimy little hands in, we deserve to have serious questions asked by better people than this. As for Tee Allen Parker, I swear I am sympathetic, but no one actually has a constitutional right to operate a bar. I would suggest that the solution here that prioritizes public health while not punishing businesses like hers that would otherwise bear the cost of that priority is to get another stimulus package passed in Washington. Such a bill has already passed the House, though of course more could be done for the Tee Allen Parkers of the world if we wanted to amend it. Maybe call your Senators and urge them to ask Mitch McConnell to do something that would help? Just a thought.

The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

It’s really hard out there on the restaurants

I feel for them, but none of this is unsurprising.

Celebrating her birthday in Galveston, Melinda Prince walked out of Yaga’s Cafe on Thursday full of coconut shrimp. What she didn’t realize was one of the employees at the restaurant may have been working while infected with the coronavirus.

Prince found out three days later through a post from the restaurant’s Facebook account.

“I freaked out,” said Prince, who plans to quarantine for two weeks and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms arise.

Facebook posts from Yaga’s Cafe, whose managers did not respond to requests for comment, indicate other employees have since been tested for the coronavirus, the restaurant voluntarily closed, a professional cleaning crew was hired and recent customers were also encouraged to get tested.The Galveston eatery is not alone. Restaurants and bars across Texas — including in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Marcos — have closed recently due to concerns about potentially spreading the coronavirus, according to social media posts and local news reports.

I wish there were a better answer. What should happen is another round of stimulus money from Congress – the original PPP idea was fine, if incredibly clunky at first – because we really can’t just reopen everything and hope for a return to normalcy. The virus is still out there, and we’re not doing nearly enough about it. At least we will have some new face mask orders, which should help a bit. Restaurants are a huge piece of our economy, with a ton of jobs at stake, and we’re not doing nearly enough to help them through this crisis. I don’t know what else to say.

More reopening

Onward we go, whether wise or not.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced his next wave of reopenings designed to restart the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, saying child care facilities can reopen immediately, bars can open Friday with limited capacity and sporting events can return without fans at the end of the month.

Abbott also said he would permit restaurants to operate at 50% capacity starting Friday, up from 25% that’s allowed now.

At the same time, Abbott exempted two hotspot regions — Amarillo and El Paso — from his latest decisions, saying they would need to wait a week — until May 29 — while the state’s surge response teams work to contain outbreaks in each area.

Abbott’s news conference came 18 days after he began a phased reopening of the state, starting with letting restaurants, stores, movie theaters and malls open up at 25% capacity. He then allowed barbershops and salons to reopen May 8 under certain restrictions. Monday was the first day gyms were allowed to open up, also under restrictions.

Previously, child care was only available to workers deemed essential by the state. Abbott’s announcement Monday allows child care centers to reopen to help all workers returning to their jobs.

In addition to bars, Abbott is letting a host of other establishments reopen Friday, including bowling alleys, bingo halls, skating rinks, rodeos, zoos and aquariums. In the lead-up to Monday, however, the fate of bars had drawn the most attention, especially after Abbott began allowing restaurants to reopen May 1. All the businesses opening Friday will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity.

For bars that reopen Friday, the state is recommending that customers remain seated at tables of no more than six people, among other restrictions. Dancing is discouraged.

Insert Baptist joke here. On the one hand, the daily case numbers keep rising, with no clear indication that we were approaching a peak even before we started loosening things up, and without achieving the Abbott-stated benchmark of 30,000 tests per day. It’s not that we’re reopening per se, it’s that Abbott himself laid out conditions and requirements and penalties for people who failed to comply, then dropped it all like a hot rock the minute some grifter hairstylist in Dallas threw a hissy fit. It just doesn’t inspire confidence that Abbott has any idea what he’s doing or any plan to retreat if things start to get worse. That said, the rate of growth in the state is fairly slow, hospital capacity is in good shape – both of these are no doubt helped by the solid results in Harris County, for which Abbott owes Lina Hidalgo a big thank you – and to his credit Abbott paid attention to the places that needed and asked to be excluded from this round of reopenings.

The next round of reopenings will come May 31, when Abbott allow permit summer youth camps to reopen — as well as let certain professional sports to resume without spectators. The sports include basketball, baseball, car racing, football, golf, softball and tennis. Leagues will first have to apply to — and receive approval from — the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Notably, Monday marked the first time that Abbott singled out specific regions as not ready to take part in the latest reopenings.

Amarillo has been a hotspot due to outbreaks at its meatpacking plants, and earlier this month, the state dispatched one of its Surge Response Teams to the city to try to get things under control. Of the 1,801 new cases that Texas reported Saturday, over 700 were linked to the Amarillo meatpacking plants, according to Abbott’s office.

In El Paso, the situation has deteriorated enough that the county judge, Ricardo Samaniego, and other local officials asked Abbott last week to exempt the county from the next reopenings until the county sees a two-week downward trend in the number of positive cases or positive test rate. Abbott said Monday that El Paso’s hospital capacity is “too close for comfort at this particular time.”

The one-week delay “will give those communities and our surge team response the time needed to slow the spread and maintain hospital capacity,” Abbott said. “It will ensure those communities safely move into phase 2.”

The counties subject to the delay are El Paso, Randall, Potter, Moore and Deaf Smith. The latter four are all in the Amarillo region.

I have my doubts that the Abbott Strike Force will make any difference in these places, unless they find the will to shut down the meatpacking plants that have been such hotspots, but at least he’s not ignoring reality, unlike some other state officials I could name. He’s still wishy-washy, and in the end if this works out reasonably well I’ll believe it’s because he was more lucky than smart, but it could be worse. In this state, that’s often the best you can hope for. The Chron, the Press, the Current, the Rivard Report, and the Dallas Observer have more.

When is a strip club not a strip club?

When it’s a restaurant, with no strippers. What, did you think that was a trick question?

A week after a temporary court order allowed a Houston strip club to resume operations, a federal judge has ruled that the club’s owner must operate as just a restaurant – no dancers allowed.

Houston police raided Onyx Club just after midnight on May 1, insisting the business did not qualify to reopen under Gov. Greg Abbott’s guidelines for phased reopenings. Officers threatened to arrest owner Eric Langan, who defied orders until 4 a.m., when he shut down the club.

Langan’s business, Trumps Inc., filed a federal lawsuit calling the club a restaurant, and alleging that the police raid and closure violated his civil rights.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore granted Langan and Onyx Club a temporary injunction on May 1 that let the club resume operations, but said at a Friday hearing that the business may not offer any services that go beyond those specifically allowed in the new guidance.

“Sexually oriented businesses may only offer restaurant services and are prohibited from providing any other service,” Gilmore wrote in the ruling.

Onyx Club is allowed to reopen as a restaurant so long as it only serves food, but it’s presently defined as a “sexually oriented business,” according to the ruling.

“Because (Trumps Inc.) operates a sexually oriented business, they are prohibited from offering both restaurant services and entertainers, even if the entertainers are fully clothed,” Gilmore wrote.

See here for the background. That was from last Friday, and while the club owner says their business is doing well now, who knows how long that may last under these conditions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re now competing with a bunch of places whose primary business has always been food service. We’ll see how Onyx does without the loss of their main amenity.

One more thing, since this came up in that post:

In a case filed by a Houston strip club that wanted to reopen as a restaurant, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore of Houston said Abbott’s changing series of orders “has caused a state of confusion that rests clearly on the Governor’s doorstep.”

Gilmore ruled that Onyx Houston could open only “without additional entertainment” — in other words, no dancers, “even if the entertainers are fully clothed.”

But she went on to suggest some flaws in the state’s executive orders.

“As previously stated, the Plaintiff has failed to add the State as a party to this action to address the First Amendment and equal protection issues raised by the Governor’s orders. Nonetheless, the Court feels compelled to point out the constitutional problems raised by the Governor’s various orders.

“The fact that the governor has now apparently decided that jail time is too harsh a penalty for a violation of his orders is little comfort,” the judge wrote, “as even that action seems to have been motivated by the impact of his order on a single violator, Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, leaving many business owners unsure, even now, if the orders would be equally applied to them.”

The story points out that the state of Texas – not just Greg Abbott, but also Ken Paxton in his role as lapdog/enforcer – has been quite inconsistent in its directives to businesses and cities, doing a complete reversal on the matter of enforcement after Shelley Luther started showboating. This pandemic has been very difficult for all levels of government to manage. It’s something we hadn’t seen before, and the various stay-at-home orders do raise a lot of questions about executive authority and competing interests and so forth, which the courts will be sorting out, in some cases for years to come. Greg Abbott and his craven response to the first sign of pushback from the seething masses that make up his Republican Party didn’t make any of this any easier.

One good thing that may come out of all this

We may get to keep booze to go sales.

On Twitter Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested to-go alcohol sales should be made available in Texas past the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas restaurants will be allowed to open for dine-in Friday under a 25 percent occupancy limit, and they’ll also be able to still offer alcohol to-go with the purchase of food. The state may be able to keep the option permanently, Abbott said in a tweet.

“Alcohol-to-go sales can continue after May 1,” the governor tweeted Tuesday night. “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let his keep going on forever.”

Some of what the governor may be hearing — or seeing — is the online chatter between residents enjoying the ability to pick up drinks to enjoy at home throughout the pandemic. The new freedom has been the source of memes, jealousy from other states and was incorporated on El Arroyo’s famed marquee signage in Austin. Long drive-thru lines at places like Taco Cabana, where frozen margaritas are $2, have also been common.

Abbott included the hashtag #txlege in the tweet for the Texas Legislature. The next legislative session begins Jan. 12.

Hooray and all that. I can’t help but think of the multi-year struggle to get beer-to-go legislation passed in the Lege, and the big money opposition to it from the cartel known as the distributors. That was a big step forward, but there remain dumb laws that impinge on craft brewers. I wish we could wave a pandemic-powered magic wand to make it all make sense, but we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.

Well, they do serve food

Presented (mostly) without comment:

A strip club in Houston has won a temporary order from federal court Friday night allowing it to resume business after a confrontation with police over the governor’s order to allow certain types of businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Club Onyx opened just after midnight, claiming it was a full-service restaurant and that strippers there were merely “entertainment.” The governor’s order allowed restaurants, retail businesses, malls and movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity Friday.

Houston police officers raided the business within an hour of it opening, saying the business did not qualify under the categories the governor laid out. The officers threatened owner Eric Langan with arrest if he didn’t close. Langan was defiant for hours but ultimately agreed to close the club around 4 a.m.

Then the business he owns, Trump, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit alleging the raid and forced closure violated his civil rights. The suit argued that his business was a restaurant and therefore able to accept customers.

Late Friday night, federal judge Vanessa Gilmore granted the club’s owner a temporary restraining order allowing it to reopen. It also prohibited Houston police from arresting employees for doing so and ordered the agency to produce all records from its investigation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the club had primarily operated and categorized itself as a sexually oriented business before the pandemic and was only claiming to be a restaurant so it could reopen.

No one ever said this was going to be easy. There was a time when strip clubs might have been Houston’s third-biggest industry, following energy and the Medical Center. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

Day One of reopening

Just a reminder, this is where we started.

Texas reported 50 more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, the most in any one day since the state reported its first deaths in mid-March.

The state also reported it had added more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 to its total of 28,000 — the biggest one-day increase in infections since April 10.

The numbers came out less than 9 hours before Gov. Greg Abbott was set to lift restrictions on many businesses, allowing malls, movie theaters, retail stores and restaurants to begin operating at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Those businesses can only operate at 25 percent of their maximum capacity for the next two weeks under Abbott’s phased re-opening plan. After that, if things are going well, Abbott has said he will increase the limit to 50 percent occupancy.

[…]

“Understand that Texas has either the 3rd or 4th best — meaning lowest — death rate in the United States,” Abbott said in a television interview on KVUE, an ABC affiliate in Austin. “Texas never has had a situation like New York, like California, like Washington, like Louisiana, like New Jersey, like Michigan, like Illinois with deaths. We’ve never had capacity strains on our hospitals like those states.”

But over the last two days, Texas reported more than 90 deaths from the disease, state records show. That number did not include another six deaths from Harris County, according to an independent tally by Hearst Newspapers.

On Wednesday the state reported 42 people had died. In the previous week the total deaths were 25 per day, on average.

Cheerful, I know. To be fair, the total on any one day is not itself that useful – it’s the trend, the rolling average over several days, that really matters. The point here is that we were not on a steady decline to begin with. Looking at the Trib’s chart, we’re still going up. Some of that is because of more testing, though we’re still at a pathetically low level of testing. If we can ever get to an adequate level, maybe then we’ll know how it’s truly going.

In the meantime, just because we can open doesn’t mean we will.

Arrows on the floor show customers which way to walk. Sanitizing stations appear on the walls. Signs advise shoppers to wash their hands.

On the first day that Texas’ stay-at-home order expired and non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen under social distancing protocols, customers, business owners and employees alike braved a new world together — six feet apart and at 25 percent capacity.

Most of Houston’s Galleria Mall, a massive up-scale mall that typically attracts 30 million visitors a year, stood empty. The majority of the mall’s 400 storefronts kept doors locked. Tables and chairs in the food court are missing, since only to-go orders are allowed. Kiosks that normally sell jewelry, perfume and gifts are draped with black cloths.

But lights flickered from some retailers, where masked workers stood anxious as the clock neared 11 a.m., when they would open their doors. Employees went about their business in the minutes leading up to the reopening; at ba$sh, a women’s clothing retailer, workers prepared the store with new inventory, pulling a rolling rack of flower-print dresses for display. Then, a handful of customers began to trickle in.

Mall general manager Kurt Webb said many tenants are anxious to get back to business, but he’s not expecting them to do so all at once.

“Early on, we’re OK with that,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re giving everyone enough space and earning people’s confidence that malls are a place the community can come and feel safe.”

Extra masks and sanitizing wipes are available for shoppers on the mall’s third floor office. But earning consumer confidence back will be a tough sell, particularly in malls. Only about a third of U.S. consumers feel safe going to the store right now, according to a Deloitte survey of consumer behavior.

[…]

Labor advocates and pro-business groups alike largely advised against the re-opening.

The Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group, discouraged Houston companies from returning to the office if possible on the first day that the stay-at-home order had expired in Texas. Bob Harvey, the CEO of the GHP, said in a statement that office-based employees have been able to carry out tasks remotely for some time, and there is, “no need to add fuel to the fire,” when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized the opening as a “premature green light,” if the state does not allow employees to refuse work if their employer does not meet safety standards in the pandemic.

Also not rushing to reopen:

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March deemed churches to be “essential” services and superseded bans on in-person religious gatherings in Harris and other counties, many local congregations opted to stick with online services and follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

A month later, Abbott has cleared the way for churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to resume larger gatherings as part of a plan announced Monday to restart Texas’ economy.

But there is far from a consensus among local religious leaders over whether now is the time to throw open church doors, even with Abbott’s social-distancing recommendations. A group of more than 80 Christian churches across greater Houston has signed a statement saying they would not hold in-person services during May.

“We believe that in-person gatherings for worship that are larger than 50 persons should not take place in April or May. We will not have in-person worship but will continue offering worship online,” said the statement. “In making this decision, we have the unanimous support of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center who strongly recommend these actions for all the faith communities of Greater Houston.”

Since the statement went out on Friday, about 25 more churches have added their signatures, according to Scott Jones, as resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“We can see clearly at this time that resumption of larger group gatherings should not happen in the next six weeks,” the statement reads. “Deciding when to resume in-person worship for larger gatherings should be evaluated as new information about the rate of new cases and the availability of testing is available.”

Not every church leader agrees. Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop for Galveston-Houston, which includes 1.7 million Catholics, announced Wednesday evening that masses would resume this weekend with social distancing.

Second Baptist Church, which counts tens of thousands of Houstonians as members, said it will resume services at its campuses — again with social distancing — on May 9. The church said it may add new services to allow congregants to worship while remaining 6 feet apart.

And then there’s restaurants:

Dozens of Houston restaurants will reopen for dine-in service on Friday, May 1.

This list includes almost exclusively locally owned establishments from across a variety of price points and parts of Houston. That’s not necessarily the case in other parts of Texas; our sister site in Austin declined to publish a similar list of restaurants because “our story would largely consist of mega-chains or restaurant groups based in other cities.”

Those who choose to dine out this weekend will find restaurants to be different places than they were in February. Per regulations from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, diners will not be able to use valet parking. They will be expected to wash their hands upon entering a restaurant. Once seated — at parties no larger than six and at least six feet away from other tables — they’ll find that shared condiment dispensers such as ketchup bottles and salt shakers have been replaced by single-use, disposable items.

Picos has installed plexiglass partitions at the bar and in between some tables to separate both staff from diners and diners from each other. Many restaurants are limiting restroom occupancy to one person at a time, with a staff member monitoring the area to enforce social distancing. Contactless payment via Venmo or another app may be strongly encouraged.

Similarly, most restaurants have not only explicitly endorsed the Texas Restaurant Association’s Texas Restaurant Promise that recommends daily health screening of employees and frequent sanitizing of common areas but have also told CultureMap that their employees will be wearing masks and gloves when they interact with customers. Patrons should also strongly consider face coverings when they’re not eating to help prevent spreading the virus.

While the decision to reopen or patronize a restaurant’s dining room is controversial — one Instagram follower got blocked for a message that simply read “restaurants = death” — many people are ready to dine out. Representatives tell CultureMap that both Tony’s and Steak 48 are mostly booked for both Friday and Saturday, and Federal Grill had no trouble filling its available tables when it reopened last weekend.

I’m not, at least at this point, going to judge any business that felt they needed to reopen, or any person who wanted to patronize them. We are going to have to figure this out one way or another, and maybe at least we’ll get a better handle on how to do this by actually doing it, however risky or ill-advised it may be. I reserve the right to judge the hell out of anyone or any business that doesn’t reel it back in if it becomes clear that’s what we need to do, or who refuse to consider how their actions may affect others. I judge the hell out of these people, for example.

Speaking of which

Gov. Greg Abbott moved Friday to open up parts of the Texas economy, but he continues to get pressure from many Republicans to move faster even as Democrats have warned him to slow down.

Several conservative state legislators began a letter-writing campaign calling on Abbott to reopen other sectors of the economy — notably hair salons, barbershops, and bars.

“It is confusing to Texans that they have been allowed to congregate en masse at grocery stores and other big box stores since this crisis began, yet they are barred from patronizing a local barber shop or salon, for example, where they are served individually by professionals trained in sanitation and where they can social distance from other customers,” State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Thursday.

She’s not alone. Other lawmakers from around the state have been sending in letters as well and taking to social media to prod the governor to open more businesses.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, took to Facebook to post a story about a Dallas salon that tried to open in defiance of Abbott’s orders to remain closed but was later forced to shut down.

“Greg Abbott Respectfully, ENOUGH!!! You are the only one that can STOP this!!! ENOUGH!!!” White wrote.

Abbott has said he, too, wants to see barber shops and hair salons open “as quickly as possible.” In an interview on KSAT in San Antonio on Thursday, he said he’s working with health officials to determine when those businesses can reopen safely. He said in those settings, workers and customers are in such close contact that they have to get the precautions right to prevent a flare-up of coronavirus infections.

“The decisions we make are based upon data as well as input from doctors,” Abbott said.

The hills some people pick to die on, perhaps literally. I do not understand.

Let’s close on a better note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday announced a fourth step to the mitigation plan she unveiled earlier this week to help reopen and restart Houston’s economy.

The mitigation plan announced earlier this week calls for expanding testing, contact tracing and treatment options. The fourth step announced Friday, what Hidalgo called the fourth “T”, is teamwork from residents to continue practice social distancing, wear face coverings and to remain vigilant of the virus, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the stay-at-home order and reopen some businesses.

“We can’t ignore what is right around the corner,” Hidalgo said of a possible resurgence of the virus. “Some see today as a day of celebration…my message to them is not so fast.”

[…]

“Reopening doesn’t mean mission accomplished, it doesn’t mean the virus goes away,” Hidalgo said.

At least someone is keeping her eye on the ball.

Reopening roundup redux

More news about that thing that Greg Abbott is making us do.

Health experts give Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas mixed reviews, warn state should revive stay-at-home order if surge emerges:

Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, said Monday’s announcement came too soon — and did not give businesses enough time to prepare precautionary measures before opening Friday.

“That’s a concern,” she said.

Health leaders in some Texas cities said it was too soon to relax social distancing precautions that have helped keep the coronavirus outbreak manageable in Texas. Abbott moved toward reopening about 10 days sooner than health leaders in Houston had hoped for, according to the Houston Chronicle. The governor said his order supersedes any local restrictions.

“This is too soon for us,” Mark Escott, Austin’s interim health authority, said Tuesday during a city council meeting. “As we’re still preparing contact tracing, ramping up testing, working to protect vulnerable populations, now is not the time to flip on the light switch.”

At the same meeting, Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, shared a model she created showing that Austin could surge past its hospital capacity as soon as this summer if social distancing regulations are eased indefinitely.

In Dallas County, which marked its deadliest day on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Director Philip Huang said some area hospitals have seen increases in COVID-19 populations.

“These are the trends we’re worried about even before the governor’s order,” he said, standing in front of a screen that read “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” As businesses reopen, he said, it is all the more important that Dallas continue to socially distance, wear masks and “make smart choices.”

Health experts said Abbott must be careful in determining whether it’s safe to continue to expand business openings in coming weeks. The success of the economic reopening depends on increasing the state’s capacity for testing and contact tracing.

Moving forward to the second phase of reopening — when certain businesses could serve customers at 50% capacity — depends on the outcome of the first stage. Abbott said it is “only logical” that the restrictions he’s easing this week will cause an increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases. That alone will not be “decisive,” he said.

The governor and his advisers will look closely at hospitalization rates and death rates to decide whether it is safe to move on to phase two. But Abbott’s plan, outlined in a 65-page booklet, does not offer specific figures or thresholds.

[Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, a professor of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UT Health] said “any sort of uptick in cases would be worrisome to me.”

A distinct lack of metrics was a concern to me as well, but what do I know?

Texas sending restaurant and retail employees back to work without child care:

Restaurant servers, retail cashiers and movie theater concession workers in Texas could be called back to work as soon as Friday, in the first phase of the state’s emergence from a coronavirus shelter-at-home order.

But parents working in those industries who have young children will be turned away from licensed child care centers, which remain open only for children of essential workers such as grocery clerks and nurses. And public and private schools across the state are closed for all students through the end of the school year.

As Republican state leaders move to re-energize the economy, already a controversial decision, they are forcing some parents into a near-impossible choice: find a place to leave your child or risk losing your source of income. Under the state’s current rules, Texans who choose not to go to work when their business reopens will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.

“Public health needs indicate that child care operations may remain open only to serve children whose parent is considered an ‘essential’ worker under the Governor’s executive order,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, in a statement. “Just because a business is now open does not necessarily mean that it is considered ‘essential.’”

But the Texas Workforce Commission has since said in a follow-up statement that it is considering case-by-case waivers that would allow some people to continue receiving unemployment benefits even if they choose not to return to a reopened business.

“Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” the statement said. “Recognizing this, extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration the governor’s direction towards reopening the economy.”

It’s almost as if the problems that had been identified for working people in good times were exacerbated in a time of crisis. No one could have seen that coming.

Montgomery County commissioners call Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas economy ‘vague’:

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough late Tuesday and acknowledged his order to reopen Texas businesses on Friday needed clarification after Keough called the plan vague and said it didn’t mandate businesses such as hair and nail salons, bars and gyms remain closed.

“I actually went back and looked at the order and I can understand why he’s saying that it needs clarification. And so we will provide that clarification,” Abbott said in a Fox 26 interview regarding Keough’s comments.

Keough said he appreciated the governor’s attention in the matter but said he is standing his ground that his interpretation of Abbott’s order only says those businesses “shall” be avoided, which, he said, does not mean the businesses can’t open. He added if and when Abbott clarifies the order in writing, he will abide by its guidelines.

During the commissioners court regular meeting Tuesday morning, Keough said the county has done all it can to follow guidelines from Abbott. However, he said the opening of some businesses over others “doesn’t make sense.” After reading Abbott’s order, Keough said it does not close or keep closed any businesses.

“He doesn’t close those,” Keough said of businesses such as hair salons, barbershops, gyms and nail salons. “It says you should avoid these businesses. It is uncommonly vague what he has said and there is a measure of confusion. I am not trying to push against the governor, I am just trying to free the people who have been chosen to be the losers.

“The object here is not to go rogue on the state of Texas or the governor. The object is we have until Friday to get clarification on this. As far as we are concerned, he has not declared these (businesses) closed.”

Still waiting on that clarification. People seem to be especially agitated over the haircut issue:

As Abbott made the rounds of TV news interviews Tuesday, it was clear that his hair edict had struck a strong and disappointed chord with some Texans.

“Now governor, by far the most calls we have been getting are from barbers and hairdressers who are trying to understand why they are not in phase one of your plan,” the interviewer on KFDX in Wichita Falls asked Abbott on Tuesday afternoon. “People feel that personal grooming is essential and if proper precautions are taken, why isn’t the hair industry in phase one?”

“Well, first I agree with their sentiment 110%. And I know that fellow Texans do also,” Abbott replied. “But once again, the decisions that we made yesterday were decisions based upon recommendations by doctors, and so some doctors concluded that because of the close proximity between a barber and a customer and a hair salon and a customer, even though they’re wearing face masks, we’re still looking for best strategies.

“But it’s so important for your audience to know this,” Abbott said. “After my announcement yesterday, we began working on the issue immediately, and we are continuing to work on it and we will be looking forward to try to make an announcement really soon as we come up with safe strategies for barbers and hair salons to be able to reopen.”

I mean, my hair is approaching levels of shagginess not seen since my grad student days, but that hasn’t broken my spirit yet. My hair will still be there to be cut in a couple of weeks, you know?


Go click and read the thread, and also read this Eater story if you haven’t already.

Office space: How to keep Texas workers safe as they return:

The office refrigerator? Better take it away. The office coffee pot? Ditto. Even shared copiers and printers have become biological hazards, thanks to the spread of the coronavirus.

Workplace culture as we knew it in January is disappearing as companies prepare for the return of employees as early as Friday in Texas.

Many companies have focused on separating employee workstations so workers remain 6 feet apart to comply with government social-distancing recommendations. They’re also buying masks and gloves to prevent the virus from spreading. But what about not-so-obvious dilemmas, such as whether to station someone on each floor to help maintain distancing in office elevators. And what to do about the germ-covered door knobs on bathroom doors?

“It’s the simple things, like unfortunately and sadly, maybe eliminate the handshake,” Jason Habinsky, an employment lawyer with Haynes and Boone, told employers this week during a telephone seminar. Instead, maybe workers could point and a nod at each other, a manner that before the conoravirus pandemic might have been awkward but now makes sense.

I don’t drink coffee and I almost never generate paper, but I do bring my lunch more often than not. Guess I’ll have to plan to start bringing a cooler or something. This world we’re going to re-enter is going to be so very different from the one we left.

Reopening roundup

Judge Hidalgo adjusts to the new status that has ben imposed on us from Austin.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to significantly expand novel coronavirus case tracing, and maintain reserve hospital capacity, to prepare for a potential virus surge as businesses reopen.

Hidalgo outlined the strategy in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision a day earlier to allow restaurants, malls, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen Friday. Harris County’s government will do its best to adjust, the county judge said.

“Frankly, I think containing this virus will be a tall order given the May 1 timeline,” Hidalgo said. “But we’re going to do everything we can, move heaven and earth to make it work.”

The county plans to recruit 300 “contact tracers” to investigate where infected people may have spread the virus and to whom. Epidemiologists will train existing county employees, volunteers and some new hires on how to track the path of a COVID-19 patient.

[…]

With a finite supply of nasal swabs, the judge warned that the county can only handle up to 100 positive cases per day. A spike would jeopardize the supply.

“If we let our foot off the gas right now, the virus will inevitably come back, and it will come back as much force, if not more force, as before,” Hidalgo said.

“For us to be safe, we need to get keep the new cases below 100 new cases a day,” she said.

I don’t know if those 300 contact tracers in Harris County are a part of the one thousand new contact tracers that Greg Abbott promised or if they are in addition to them. That would be a good question to clarify, in case Abbott meant one thing but was happy to let you believe another. In either case, we’re going to need a lot more testing. Far as I can tell, we have a lot more lip service than testing capability, at least at the state level.

Meanwhile, our local czars have their own plans.

Houston’s new recovery czar Marvin Odum says both the city and the county will eventually unveil plans for businesses in the region to reopen in a “gradual” and a “phased” approach, depending on business sectors.

Odum told Houston Public Media it’s important to first understand the risks around those various sectors returning to business

“And then making sure that we’re building — in cooperation with our medical community, and the state, and others — a monitoring program, which would involve testing strategically applied to those groups, contact tracing where necessary, and being able to bring people back to work.”

Odum says that approach is key to simultaneously getting people back to work and keeping them safe.

[…]

“Everything has to be based on data and science before we open up any businesses,” Walle said.

Odum said there will be some segments of the economy where the risks can be managed easier.

“But as you get into sectors that have more human contact — dealing with customers for example — that may require some additional tools,” Odum said.

Walle is State Rep. Armando Walle, the Harris County Recovery Czar. He will be advising Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court as Odum will be advising Mayor Turner and City Council.

And of course, various things that are now allowed to open may yet take their time in doing so. Museums, for instance:

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston isn’t ready to announce any reopening date, citing the need to establish safety precautions and to communicate with city officials.

“Our Return to Work Task Force has been actively working to determine how best to safely reopen the MFAH for our 650 staff and our visitors, but we are just now, along with many others, considering the governor’s statement,” the museum said in a statement. “We have not yet had an opportunity to connect with the mayor’s office and the county’ judge’s office to understand what the local requirements will be, as the report notes is needed.”

The Asia Society is also following a cautious path.

“We are not reopening on May 1,” an Asia Society representative said.

The Holocaust Museum Houston “might open, at the earliest, Memorial Day weekend,” said a representative who spoke with the museum’s CEO, though any opening would need “an ongoing sanitization process” to be put in place.

The Menil and the Houston Museum of Natural Science did not respond by press time. However, the Asia Society representative said all of Houston’s museums, led by the MFAH, are communicating with one another.

Movie theaters:

Movie theater chains across Texas, though, seem fairly unified in their decision-making: there’s no point in reopening early. The Plano-based Cinemark, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and out-of-state chains like AMC and Regal (both of which operate a number of theaters across Texas) all responded to the news that they’re allowed to open as early as this weekend with a resounding, “Nah, not yet.”

There’s a good reason for that, even if theaters, like almost every business that isn’t a supermarket or home improvement store, are hurting amid the shutdown: there’s nothing to watch. Theater chains live and die by the studio release calendar, and studios haven’t released a movie since March 13, with the first new releases not scheduled to debut until mid-July. Theaters may be allowed to open, but they’d be relegated to picking from a slate of repertory releases and indie films that are being simultaneously released on video-on-demand services merely in hopes that they might be able to entice 25 percent of customers to risk contracting the virus in order to watch something they can easily see at home. And while Abbott may have issued an executive order allowing movie theaters to reopen, the ecosystem of the movie business isn’t built around what individual theaters choose to do.

Your various major releases, like Black Widow, which my 13-year-old is gonna demand to see on opening weekend, have either been released on streaming or pushed back into the late summer or fall, when everyone fervently hopes this will be much more behind us. Until then, all the theaters will have to show are oldies and maybe a few small indy films. Good luck with that.

Restaurants are more likely to be available.

No sooner than Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference on reopening the Texas economy had ended, restaurateur Michael Sambrooks was on the phone making calls to servers to come back to work.

Abbott’s announcement Monday that restaurants could reopen Friday for dine-in service at 25 percent of occupancy brings the battered restaurant industry one step closer to resuming traditional operations.

“I’m ready to get 25 percent back to work,” said Sambrooks, owner of Sambrooks Management, whose restaurants include 1751 Sea and Bar, Candente and The Pit Room. “It definitely feels like a step toward getting back to normal. It feels very hopeful to getting open and start serving people again.”

[…]

While resuming dine-in service has been something Houston restaurateurs have been anticipating, 25 percent is nowhere near normal operations, said restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality.

“In any other time, if you were operating at 25 percent, you’re talking about closing your doors,” said Berg, whose restaurants include B&B Butchers & Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s. “Twenty-five percent isn’t a great business model, but it’s something.”

With the glass-half-empty perspective, that means 75 percent fewer guests; 75 percent less revenue, Berg added.

Still, on Monday he found himself busy planning how to order food, train staff and retool restaurants in hopes that some of his stores could be open on May 1.

“There’s no way we can reopen everything at the same time,” Berg said. “It would be like six grand openings again.”

But for someone like Alex Au-Yeung, who owns the 80-something seat Phat Eatery in Katy, having 19 ¾ customers — as he calculates his 25 percent occupancy — is a move toward getting back to full capacity at his Malaysian street food restaurant.

“It won’t be close to normal operations, but we’ll do what we can,” he said, adding that he also will continue curbside pickup and delivery. “I know there are people who would love to go back out to eat.”

What returning to dining out will look like and feel like will mostly be dictated by guidelines the TRA association laid out weeks ago to assure worker and customer safety as the state strives to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The TRA’s measures include health checks for employees prior to each shift; indoor and outdoor seating with safe distancing guidelines; hand sanitizer or washing stations available to customers and employees; sanitizing common areas and surfaces regularly; and sanitizing dining areas after every use. Expect to see disposable menus, waiters wearing face masks and spaced-out seating in dining rooms — many of which may be operating by reservation-only in order to control the 25 percent restriction.

On Monday the TRA emphasized that no restaurant should reopen until it is ready to do so: “Texas restaurants are experts in safety, sanitation and customer satisfaction, and we know that these values will continue to drive their decision making.”

Dallas Eater lists some good reasons why restaurants shouldn’t rush to reopen, including “Many restaurants aren’t big enough for six-foot table spacing”, “There’s no such thing as social distancing in a kitchen”, and “Servers returning to their jobs will be forced to take a serious pay cut as revenues stay low”, among others. It’s a Dallas-specific list, but I daresay it would apply anywhere else.

Look, I wish them all well, I really hope every single restaurant is able to come back from this catastrophe. I don’t think I’m ready to eat in a restaurant yet, and I’m worried these half-measures won’t do much to help them in the interim. I don’t know what the best answer is. Maybe this will work out fine. I sure hope it does. There’s just no way to know.

And so reopening begins

I have questions.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that he will let the state’s stay-at-home order expire Thursday as scheduled and allow businesses to begin reopening in phases the next day, the latest ramp-up in his push to restart the Texas economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

First to open Friday: retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls. But they will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. Museums and libraries will also be allowed to open at 25% capacity, but hands-on exhibits must remain closed.

Abbott said a second phase of business reopenings could come as soon as May 18 — as long as the state sees “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19.” That second phase would allow business to expand their occupancy to 50%, according to the governor.

Abbott made the announcement during a news conference at the Texas Capitol, which he began by saying he would let the stay-at-home order expire because it “has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19.” While the spread of the virus in Texas has slowed down throughout April, the number of cases is still increasing day to day, and it is unclear if the state has yet seen its peak.

“Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans.”

Abbott said his new order “supersedes all local orders” saying those businesses must remain closed. He also said his order overrules any local government that wants to impose a fine or penalty for not wearing a mask — something the latest statewide rules encourage but do not mandate.

Speaking shortly after Abbott in Houston, the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, told reporters that Abbott’s new order “pretty much will take these measures, the ability to [issue] stay-at-home orders and things of that nature, out of our hands locally.” He said he hoped Abbott’s plan works but offered a “cautionary note,” pointing out that there is still no vaccine and statistics show the “virus is still here,” even as local measures have slowed it down.

Abbott stressed that his order “gives permission to reopen, not a requirement,” and businesses can stay shuttered if they would like.

At the same time, Abbott said he is holding off on reopening certain businesses for the time, including barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms. He said he hopes those businesses can open “on or no later than mid-May.”

[…]

Abbott mostly focused Monday on contact tracing, or the practice of tracking down and isolating all the people someone who tested positive for the virus has come into contact with. Abbott said Texas is already in the second phase of its contact tracing plan, adding 1,000 tracers on top of the existing 1,100 and launching a statewide app and call center to improve the process.

Abbott continued to talk of a coming increase in testing and said the state soon would “easily exceed our goal of 25,000 tests per day.” The state has been adding an average about 14,000 tests per day over the past week, according to figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Still, the total number of tests done as of Monday — 290,517 — remained about 1% of Texas’ nearly 29 million people.

See here for the background, and here for the plan, such as it is. It’s full of guidelines for various businesses and customers and nursing homes and the like, and short on details about things like how we’re going to achieve the testing goal. If you haven’t yet started wearing a face mask you don’t have to, though you really should and in some places you won’t have a choice regardless of what Abbott says.

I said I have questions, so here are a few:

– How many businesses will consider it worth the bother to reopen at 25% capacity?
– What does “confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” mean? As the story notes, the daily number of cases is continuing to rise. If two weeks from now that is still the case, but the rate of the daily increase hasn’t gone up, is that a success under the Abbott plan?
– What happens if there’s a local “flare up”, like say at another meat processing facility, or just in some random part of the state? If Montgomery County has seen an uptick in cases, do they get to re-impose a shutdown order?
– When should we expect to see that statewide app? Will it require some minimum number of people to download and install it in order to work? What metrics will there be for it – number of app downloads, number of people traced, number of infections mapped out, etc? What happens if we fail to meet those metrics?
– What medical experts advised on this? Because clearly not all medical experts are in agreement with it.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I doubt Greg Abbott knows the answer to most of them. As I said before, the word that comes to mind for this is “half-baked”. Maybe everything will be fine, maybe we’re just easing up on less-risky behavior, maybe that testing and contact tracing regimen will be more robust than I expect, maybe people will continue to take social distancing seriously enough to keep a lid on things. I hope everything does go well. I’d surely like to start going places and doing things again. I’m just concerned that we barely have a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. What will we do if this doesn’t go the way we hope? The Current, the Press, the Rivard Report, and the Chron have more.

The local plea to reopen

I have a lot of sympathy, but I don’t think this is a great idea.

A coalition of 350 local businesses is urging Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo to begin May 1 to ease stay-at-home restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, warning many firms cannot survive additional weeks of forced closures.

The impromptu association, calling itself the Houston Coronavirus Business Group, said in identical letters to the leaders Wednesday that a balance must be struck between the medical community’s desire to keep cases and deaths down and the need to limit damage to the economy.

The group said business leaders should have an equal influence in extending restrictions beyond April 30 as doctors, who they said fail to grasp the severe economic damage wrought by the “draconian” stay-at-home order.

“These good folks aren’t business or economic experts, and they don’t see or understand the economic spiral that we are currently experiencing and the human toll a complete shutdown will ravage in terms of lives, mental health, physical wellbeing, crime, poverty, etc.,” the letter states.

The letter is the first organized push by members of the business community against restrictions of movement and commerce since the pandemic reached the Houston area.

The virus is expected to peak in the Houston area in late April or early May, health experts say, calling it a potentially disastrous time to permit residents to again congregate in restaurants, offices and playgrounds.

“The virus will and should dictate when we lift restrictions,” said Baylor College of Medicine CEO Dr. Paul Klotman. “It makes no sense to artificially pick a date based on what we wish to happen.”

Let me say first that however you feel about this effort, I’m glad these guys didn’t resort to crap like this or this. I don’t have a good answer for them. Ideally, the federal government would have fully stepped in to ease the burden on these businesses, but the first round of assistance is already gone, with a lot of it not going to the businesses that needed it the most, and who knows what will come next or when it may come. There are some local efforts to help restaurants, like this one Mayor Turner just launched, which I consider to be a very high priority. But ultimately, until there is sufficiently widespread testing and the ability to track the movements of those who catch the virus, anything we do to loosen restrictions now is just a huge risk. I mean, a much wider pandemic with a much higher death rate isn’t going to be good for anyone’s business, either. I wish there were something more we could do.

Worrying about the restaurants

Alison Cook laments the potential fate for her favorite part of Houston.

Depending on local or state strictures, to help stem the spread of Covid-19 restaurants in most major markets would be able to provide takeout, drive-thru or delivery rations only. Dine-in was done, for the present and — according to some epidemiologists and public health experts — very possibly in rolling closures for the next 18 months. That’s the time it will take for a vaccine to be tested, manufactured and made available.

If we’re lucky.

Even though I’ve suspected this was coming since the calamitous February business drop experienced by restaurants in Bellaire Boulevard’s Asiatown — a preview of what lay ahead for the whole market as Covid-19 spread, I feared — the reality of the closures has hit me hard.

I gasped when I saw an Open Table graph that showed restaurant bookings, already down 45 to 65% last week, plunging off the cliff to zero on Tuesday in Boston, L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Washington, D.C. It looked like the highway to hell.

I’m in mourning daily as I read the anguished tweets from Houston chefs and restaurant owners I admire. I’m sick with worry for the servers and bartenders and bussers and line cooks whose livelihoods are in peril.

[…]

My greatest sorrow is that I see a great winnowing ahead. On the other side of this public health crisis, it seems likely that Houston’s dining landscape will be substantially altered. Restaurant profit margins are slim in the best of times, and without serious public investment at the state or federal level, we are likely to see many bankruptcies.

It’s not the big chain restaurants I’m worried about — it’s the mom-and-pops and the small independent operators who help to define the city. Those are a cultural legacy well worth saving.

Ian Froeb, the restaurant critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told a radio interviewer the following: “I have a top 100 restaurant list and somebody that’s in the industry said, ‘You could be looking at 80 of the 100 might not come back.’ I didn’t push back. That seems like a real possibility.”

I’m not quite that pessimistic, yet, but the fallout is going to be bad.

Obviously, we can all do more ordering takeout in the interim, in the hope that these places we love can weather the storm, which we also hope will be measured in weeks and not months. But let’s be clear, the state of Texas could also help.

Up against a Friday deadline, the broad base of workers in the Texas restaurant industry have asked Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials to waive monthly sales taxes due by the end of the day.

Bobby Heugel, owner of several popular bars and restaurants in Houston, said many businesses could ride out the new coronavirus’ social slowdown for months if the state waived, delayed or deferred the monthly taxes.

“We have been crushing the governor’s office for requests of deferrals,” Heugel said Thursday. “Their voicemail actually stopped working late last night.”

Comptroller Glenn Hegar said the state won’t push back Friday’s deadline, though it has done so after hurricanes and other disasters. Hegar and aides cited a couple of reasons: Hurricanes and similar disasters, unlike pandemics, can knock out the infrastructure used to calculate and pay taxes. More importantly, the state and local governments that depend on those taxes to keep hospitals and emergency services going need the money as they prepare for the number of Texans testing positive for the new coronavirus to skyrocket within weeks.

“It would be irresponsible, but more popular, to delay collections,” said Karey Barton, associate deputy comptroller for tax. “The people who paid those taxes need that money to be available to keep operating hospitals and other services.”

I understand the concern, but the state has a rainy day fund it can tap into to bridge the gap in the interim. Maybe Greg Abbott needs to use his emergency powers to make that happen, maybe he needs to call a special session to enable it, or maybe he just needs to order it and let someone file a lawsuit to stop him, I don’t know. But the effect of losing a significant portion of the hospitality industry will last a lot longer than this crisis. We need to think outside the box here, and take action as needed before it’s too late.

UberEats expands

Good news for those of you who like having food delivered.

Uber

A larger section of metro Houston now can use Uber’s meal delivery service seven days a week and with more dining options through a new app.

A new UberEats app, separate from the Uber ride-sharing app meal ordering customers have used, launches Tuesday.

“Houstonians have embraced UberEats, but we also know that with a separate app, we are able to give users a better experience,” said Sarah Groen, general manager for UberEats Houston.

As of the app’s launch, 100 restaurants are participating. More are being added to the list, Groen said.

The service’s operation hours have been extended beyond midday weekdays to daily between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Users will be able to browse menus and order food from participating restaurants, and track drivers bringing their food. The service area has expanded beyond downtown and Midtown, and now includes the Galleria area, The Heights, Montrose, Rice Village, West University and Upper Kirby.

Those areas have shown large demand for UberEats, where the company has received many requests from people asking for service, Groen said. In January, the company did test runs in the new areas and registered high demand.

See here for the background. I’m still not the kind of person who likes to order food for delivery, so I’m still not in their market. But if you are, and you live in these areas, then these are good days for you. The Houston Business Journal and the Houston Press, both of which have maps of the expanded service area, have more.

UberEats

Some new food delivery options, at least for some people.

Uber

Uber will expand its presence in Houston this week with the local launch of its meal-delivery service, UberEats.

Beginning Thursday, Houston becomes the second city in Texas and the 10th in North America where Uber drivers will deliver meals. Customers in downtown and Midtown can use the Uber app to select from a list of 60 participating restaurants and place orders, said Sarah Groen, general manager of UberEats Houston.

After customers order and pay through the app, the company says an Uber driver will arrive with the food – already in the car in temperature-controlled containers – within 10 minutes.

“We keep that geography fairly small to make sure we can deliver on that promise of 10 minutes or less,” Groen said.

[…]

Several app-based and online food delivery services already operate in Houston and for longer hours. They include GrubHub, Favor and DoorDash.

Groen said Uber Eats differs because of its changing menus. Some participating chefs are creating specific meals for UberEats.

I have no feel for how big a market there may be for something like this. We cook or we eat out – even when we order a pizza, from Pink’s here in the Heights, I pick it up. If you’re the sort of person that is into this sort of thing, then this is good news for you. We’ll see if there are enough such people to make this a success.

Food trucks arrive downtown

Welcome.

Houston’s foodie community rejoiced Friday as Mayor Annise Parker welcomed propane-fueled food trucks downtown after a years-long ban, but more plans to loosen the city’s mobile unit rules are not likely to meet the same fanfare at City Council in the coming months.

Parker bypassed council to remove the restriction on propane-fueled food trucks downtown, citing a fire marshal opinion that tanks weighing up to 60 pounds are safe.

“It may not seem like the most important issue the city could address,” said Parker, standing in front of a colorful food truck, The Modular, across from City Hall on Friday. “But believe me, if you invest in a food truck, you want to serve great food to Houstonians, this absolutely makes a difference.”

Two other industry changes on Parker’ food trucks agenda – letting the trucks use tables and chairs and removing 60-foot spacing requirements between mobile units – need to go through council members, whose opinions on food trucks vary by district.

[…]

Council Member Brenda Stardig has proved a particularly vocal critic, calling for more food truck inspectors.

“I’m not against food trucks,” Stardig said. “There are some really cool ones. But some of the ones that historically we’ve had in District A, they set up shop permanently. Until we have the ability to have more inspectors, less regulation and opening it to a broader market is a concern.”

Council Member Robert Gallegos also said he would like to ramp up enforcement before loosening the rules. Gallegos’ district runs from downtown to the East End.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” he said. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

See here for the background. CMs Stardig and Gallegos have valid concerns, and the city says they are working to address those concerns. It should be noted that the city has more food truck inspectors per capita (three for 800 trucks, or one for every 267) than it does restaurant inspectors (30 for 13,000, or one for every 433). I hope we can agree on what needs to be done to address the issues that have been raised so we can move forward on this.

No more wobbly tables!

I love this story.

A Houston businessman has an idea that could rid the world of having to use drink coasters and napkins to stabilize restaurant tables.

Steve Christian, owner of Houston burger institution Christian’s Tailgate Bar and Grill, believes so strongly in his invention that he sold interest in two of his restaurants, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is auditioning to get on an ABC reality show to make it succeed.

He says his patented device simply eliminates wobbly tables. It’s a catchy claim for something that costs around $20.

“Something I built in my garage outlasted everything else on the market,” Christian said of his Table Jack.

The invention, now being sold online, is already used at a number of Houston-area restaurants, including El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in the heart of Montrose and Mi Luna in Rice Village. The jack is also in use at a number of national restaurant chains, listed on the device’s official website.

[…]

The genesis of the Table Jack came when he opened his Midtown bar in the late ’90s and found that the flooring made tables unsteady. It took eight years and seven or so prototypes to get the jack that he has on the market today. The first jack debuted in Midtown in late 2008.

The device requires the installation of three glides to the bottom of three of the feet of a pedestal table. A small jack with a foot pedal is installed on the fourth foot. It allows for the table’s level to be adjusted as needed by stabilizing the three glides.

“I’ve probably spent thousands of hours engineering the jack,” Christian said. “And that number probably doesn’t do it justice.”

This is one of those “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” stories. As someone who is easily annoyed by wobbly tables, I think this is a great idea. I hope he sells a billion of them.

No kids allowed

I don’t have a problem with this.

Chef Aquiles Chavez said his decision to ban young children from his restaurant during the evening hours was not easy. And the decision wasn’t shared by his wife.

On Monday, La Fisheria, the seafood restaurant helmed by the Mexican reality TV star and chef, announced via Facebook that it is requiring guests be 9 or older when dining after 7 p.m.

The post was simple:

“After 7 p.m., people over 8 years old only. We are a family-friendly restaurant, and we also respect all of our customers, so we introduce this new policy to the restaurant. Thanks for your understanding.”

The decision to implement the policy was not.

“It was hard,” Chavez said on Tuesday. “Two of my kids are under this age, and my partner has young kids.”

The reality is that many of his customers have complained about unruly children in the dining room. It’s a Catch-22 for restaurateurs. Do you pull customers aside when children become a distraction? Or do you, as La Fisheria has chosen, keep the distractions at bay by barring youngsters altogether?

“One woman recently said, ‘I leave my children with a babysitter so I can have a romantic dinner, yet you have children running around here,’ ” Chavez said. “We had a tough decision.”

Chef Aquiles Chavez says he was getting complaints from patrons, “and you can’t tell customers’ kids to be quiet.”

Chavez said his wife didn’t approve the evening ban on children.

“My wife said, ‘Aquiles, I don’t like this.’ ”

“Customers don’t like screaming kids,” Chavez said, “and you can’t tell customers’ kids to be quiet.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable business decision, especially at a higher-end eatery, where customers will have different expectations for their experience than they would at a more family-oriented place. There are tons of good family-friendly places to eat in the area, and it’s not like kids can never eat at La Fisheria, they just have to do so earlier in the day. Which, speaking as the parent of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, would seem like the thing one would generally prefer to do, but every family’s situation is different and I’m not going to judge. If someone were pushing for a citywide ordinance to require all restaurants to adhere to a similar policy, or if there were no other good options, then I’d be concerned. But this, this is no big deal.

You can see La Fisheria’s Facebook post announcing the policy and which has drawn over 600 comments and over 60 shares so far, here; there’s another 100+ comments on the 29-95 version of the story. I will note that it’s perfectly fine in general to bring kids to nice restaurants. It’s good to give kids experience eating in places where their best manners are expected. They like doing grownup things once in awhile, and in my observation they tend to want to live up to your expectations for them. We took the girls to Artisans last month and they did fine. It helps to establish beforehand that the rules are different than they would be at, say, Berryhill, and it helps if they aren’t already starving when you arrive and don’t get too bored while waiting, but that’s just common sense. I’m actually a little surprised that this was a problem at all at La Fisheria – I honestly can’t recall ever having a meal interrupted or ruined by an unruly child. But clearly it was an issue at La Fisheria, and they took the action they believed they needed to deal with it. I’m curious to know if you have any experiences with obnoxious kids – or really, the parents who are unable or unwilling to handle them – at restaurants. Please share them in the comments if you do. CultureMap has more.

Collecting compost from restaurants

The city of Austin takes another step on its path towards zero waste.

Austin restaurants and other food businesses will have to compost food scraps starting in 2016, under new rules the City Council OK’d Thursday.

Food service businesses — including fast-food chains, caterers, cafeterias and bars — that are bigger than 5,000 square feet will be required to separate out organic and compostable materials from other trash and have them picked up by private haulers.

Smaller food businesses will have to comply starting in 2017.

Food trailers will be exempt for now, because the city needs to spend more time developing rules unique to them, said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, the city of Austin’s trash and recycling department.

Under the rules passed Thursday, large food service businesses also will have to recycle several materials, including paper, plastics and aluminum, starting next year. Smaller food businesses will have to comply later.

The new rules aim to help the city meet its so-called zero waste goal of dramatically reducing the trash sent to landfills by 2040, Gedert said.

Food scraps and other compostable goods make up 40 to 50 percent of the trash that restaurants generate, Gedert said. Keeping those goods out of the landfill will go a long way toward achieving zero waste, Gedert said.

The policy passed Thursday builds on rules that the city enacted last fall, when it began requiring large apartment properties and office buildings to recycle more materials.

[…]

Don “Skeeter” Miller, co-owner of County Line restaurants and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, said the membership was initially skeptical of the compost rules but is now mostly supportive, mainly because the rules won’t take effect for a few years.

Austin already has a pilot program for curbside composting for residences. Restaurants are obviously a big source of food waste, so bringing them into the picture ought to make a significant difference. Here in Houston, the One Bin For All plan will deal with compostable refuse, but that is just for residences. Going back through my archives, it’s not clear to me if “residences” means just the places currently covered by city of Houston trash pickup or if it also includes apartments, but in either case it does not include businesses, particularly restaurants. I would like to see Houston extend its vision to include businesses and office buildings as well. One thing at a time, I understand, I’m just noting this for the record. I wish Austin all the best in this effort.

City proposes bike parking alternatives

Nice.

Public House on White Oak

Bicycle advocates are cheering a city proposal that would give businesses an incentive to offer bike parking and would require some properties to provide it for the first time, saying the ideas mark a cultural shift in Houston.

“This is a first for Houston and a sign of how our city is evolving,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It recognizes the popularity of cycling and gives a nod to the fact that there are other modes of transportation besides automobiles.”

The bike-related ideas are included in a proposed rewrite of the city’s off-street parking ordinance, largely untouched since it was passed in 1989. The proposal is expected to go before City Council soon. Debate over the rewrite mainly has focused on its impact on bars and restaurants, many of which would be required to provide more parking.

The city initially had exempted only freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; independent restaurateurs wanted all establishments smaller than 4,500 square feet to be exempt. The sides appear to have reached an agreement that would exempt all restaurants smaller than 3,000 square feet and all bars smaller than 2,500 square feet.

[…]

Under the proposed revisions, new retail, commercial and office buildings 5,000 square feet or larger would need to provide one bike parking space, with another bike space required for every additional 25,000 square feet, up to a maximum of six spaces.

The ordinance also would allow any property, other than single-family homes, to reduce required car parking by up to 10 percent by trading one car space for four bike spaces. A 10,000-square-foot retail business, for instance, could drop its required 40 car spaces to 36 by increasing its bike parking from the required one space to 17.

As you know, I wholeheartedly approve of this. I wouldn’t mind seeing more flexibility on trading car spaces for bike spaces, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal. Even better, the group that has been agitating the most forcefully for this sort of accommodation supports the proposal.

Brian Crimmins, chief of staff in the city Planning Department, also noted that the ability of any business (except single-family homes) to trade up to 10 percent of its required parking for additional bike parking spaces would still apply to all restaurants and bars (even those exempt from the higher parking requirements). That would allow these businesses to drop their car parking to essentially match OKRA’s proposal, he said.

In an email to top city staffers confirming the agreed changes, OKRA president Bobby Heugel said his group plans to vocally support the ordinance if it moves forward as negotiated.

“The manner in which our views were received and incorporated into Chapter 26 is exciting and encouraging as OKRA is new to the local political process,” he wrote. “It’s nice to know that participation can make a difference, and that the sharing of perspectives can result in policies in which a variety of stakeholders concerns(‘) are represented.”

You can see some more detail about the proposals as well as the full text of what the city has out forward and what OKRA had countered with.

The Chron editorializes in favor of the new approach, also with a desire to see it go farther.

We’re pleased that the new regulations include cutouts that allow different neighborhoods to create systems that are right for them. Among the added flexibility – such as reducing parking requirements for historic districts, letting bicycle parking replace a certain number of car spots and allowing shared parking lots – are Special Parking Areas. These would allow management entities to set their own parking management plan – with approval from City Hall.

This flexibility makes the proposed changes a vast improvement over the previous regulations, and the folks at City Hall say they’re trying to engage business owners so they can take advantage of the new rules on day one. City Hall could show more good faith by adopting recommendations by OKRA – the Organized Kollaboration of Restaurant Affairs – to allow more types of bars to be exempted from the higher parking minimums.

Residents worried about parking overflow can protect their neighborhoods by applying for permit parking on their streets, as many cocktail fans have learned while chasing down a tow truck.

But there is a price for living in walkable, dynamic neighborhoods, and it includes folks parking in front of your house. That is a price inner-loop Houstonians should be happy to pay.

Agreed.

The off-street parking debate

I believe the new offstreet parking requirements that have been proposed and are being debated are at least as big a deal as the Chapter 42 revisions. We really need to get this right.

Public House on White Oak

Under the new rules, some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with most bars going from 10 spaces to 14.

The revisions also would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

As Houston seeks greater density in other initiatives, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said, the city must ensure the best use of its land.

“We’re still going with the basis that we’re going to be a car-dependent community going forward,” Gonzalez said. “What about the pedestrian? How can we better align transit to meet the needs of certain neighborhoods? We should be creating conditions to create more small businesses and more jobs, not more parking lots.”

That is an argument Bobby Heugel, the force behind several nationally acclaimed Houston restaurants and bars, has been making since 2011. He helped form OKRA, an Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, to advocate for the next wave of independent restaurateurs, who he says would be barred from the market by the proposed parking changes.

[…]

The city proposes exempting freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; OKRA wants the threshold set at 4,500 square feet, regardless of whether a business is freestanding. City officials say they are willing to reconsider both points.

“The only opponents we have are city officials who incorrectly interpret residential concerns,” Heugel said.

As I said before, I have some sympathy for neighborhood residents who are tired of dealing with packed streets full of overflow parkers from nearby eateries and drinkeries, but any solution that requires more paved-over spaces or that discourages future innovation and growth in Houston’s dynamic food scene is a non-starter. The problem is that there’s been a lot of growth in many established inner core neighborhoods, with a lot more residents crowded onto the original plats and new businesses moving in to formerly abandoned spaces, but without a corresponding amount of growth in transit infrastructure. The influx of people and businesses is great and desperately needed, but the huge increase in vehicular traffic and demand for parking in places that were never built to handle it isn’t. As with other places that are dealing with more traffic than they can bear, providing viable non-car alternatives has to be a key component of the solution. Allowing food and drink establishments to trade bike parking for car parking is good, but the ultimate answer is bigger than anything the bars and restaurants themselves can do. Still, we need to remember that a lot of these new places, and a lot of the planned new places, are intended to be part of the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood. Their customer bases for the most part don’t need to drive and park to get there. The off-street parking regulations need to allow them to fulfill that vision. If we’re treating a neighborhood coffee house the same way as a franchise restaurant that fronts a highway, we’re doing it wrong.