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.