Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

restaurants

William-Paul Thomas

This is bad. The question is how much worse might it be.

William-Paul Thomas, the mayor’s council liaison, was offered more than $13,000 by a local bar owner to help him pass a building inspection and fast-track a new permit to reopen a bar as a restaurant, newly unsealed court documents show.

Thomas contacted the “relevant” fire official to ensure the unnamed business owner passed the inspection in May 2020, prosecutors wrote, and then he used his position in the mayor’s office to “pressure other officials” to approve the permit in July, as well. He was paid an undisclosed amount of money for his efforts.

Thomas pleaded guilty on July 25 to one federal count of conspiracy to accept a bribe. He will appear for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Nov. 28. His lawyer, Monique Chantelle Sparks, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The documents were sealed until Wednesday morning at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office. The Chronicle published an article about the allegations Tuesday night. Thomas’ plea deal, however, remains sealed.

It is unclear whether federal investigators are looking into the unnamed city officials Thomas allegedly worked with to get the certificate and permit approved, or if they are conducting a broader inquiry into City Hall affairs.

Sean Buckley, a legal expert on federal judicial procedures, said Thomas’ quick guilty plea and his willingness to forgo a probable cause hearing before a grand jury means he likely agreed they had strong information against him. It also suggests Thomas may be part of a wider investigation by the Justice Department.

Thomas abruptly resigned from his City Hall position last Wednesday, one day after pleading guilty. He told the mayor in an 11:30 p.m. email he was retiring due to health reasons.

[…]

City Attorney Arturo Michel said later Wednesday the office of the inspector general is opening its own investigation, based on the document’s charges that Thomas worked with officials in the fire department and permitting office to approve the requests.

Prosecutors say the bar owner — whom they did not name — needed to pass a city fire inspection to get a temporary certificate of occupancy in May 2020. He turned to Thomas for help.

“Thomas, in his official capacity, placed calls to the relevant Houston Fire Department official to ensure that COMPANY 1 would pass its fire inspection and be issued its TCO,” the charging document says. The owner then paid Thomas an undisclosed amount of money after he got the certificate.

It is not clear which fire department official Thomas contacted. Fire Chief Samuel Peña said it difficult to identify the person without the name of the business.

The business owner reached out again in June 2020, after his bar — a separate business — was shut down by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. COVID-19 restrictions around that time ordered bars to close but allowed restaurants to continue operating with limited capacity.

“On July 6, 2020, BUSINESSMAN 1 offered THOMAS up to $13,0000 to have the necessary permit issued quickly so that COMPANY 2 could reopen,” the document says. “THOMAS agreed to use his official position to pressure other officials to issue the permit quickly, all in exchange for money.”

Thomas then used his position to “pressure other officials” to grant the necessary permit, and the owner was allowed to open as a restaurant. It is not clear which specific permit the owner was seeking from the city; the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission was responsible for classifying bars and restaurants based on the percentage of sales that came from alcohol.

Buckley, a federal defense lawyer who represented former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman and authored a book on federal criminal rules and codes used by trial attorneys across the country, reviewed the court documents at the request of the Houston Chronicle. He is not involved in the case.

“He’s obviously cooperating because no one who is a target in a federal investigation would ever agree to plea to a criminal information unless there have been extensive discussions between the target, his lawyer and the government leading up to that decision,” Buckley said.

“Either the government lawyers showed him what they had or he knew what they had. He knew he had everything to gain by cooperating and agreeing to plead guilty without forcing the government to get an indictment from the grand jury, and much to lose by not cooperating.”

Buckley said it also clear the investigation, by prosecutors from the public corruption unit, has been going on for months and there likely is a wider-ranging investigation underway involving multiple defendants.

“My read on this is that this person has something of value to the government,” Buckley said.

He said the documents also indicate “there is an environment in the city of Houston that allows this type of thing to take place.”

I will say up front that I am acquainted with William-Paul. As is the case in this kind of situation, I’m shocked to see the story. I don’t know him well enough to say more than that, but as I have met him and talked to him, I wanted to say so.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no experience in these matters, but it seems to me unlikely that there would be only one such transgression like this. If nothing else, I would think the FBI wouldn’t prioritize a case with one crime of this nature. I’d expect that the bribe payer and whoever was involved with the Fire Department and permitting office will be implicated next. The big question is then whether it goes beyond that, and if so how far. There is certainly the potential for this to be big, but we won’t know until the FBI tells us, and as we know from other experiences that may take a long time. In the meantime, I wouldn’t want to be BUSINESSMAN 1 or anyone else who might be implicated. Don’t take or give bribes, y’all.

Multiple restaurants hit by “bad Google review” scam

This is on Google to fix.

Multiple Houston restaurants are being targeted by a scam involving one-star Google reviews and a demand for digital gift cards to remove the negative post.

The number of restaurants being extorted has grown in the past week to include high-end River Oaks District sister restaurants Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar; Field & Tides and Maison Pucha Bistro in the Heights; and the upscale Bludorn near Montrose. The Chronicle previously reported that Daily Gather, the CityCentre restaurant owned by the hospitality group that owns Dish Society restaurants,  had also been hit up.

The New York Times reported July 11 that restaurants across the country have been targets of the scam involving negative ratings on restaurant Google pages as a bargaining chip to extort digital gift cards.

In all the cases, the scam follows the same pattern where one-star reviews are posted on Google (these reviews appear when you search the restaurant on Google). The restaurant is then contacted by email by a person claiming responsibility for the post along with a request for a $75 Google Play gift card to stop the digital bombing.

The restaurants hit have received the following email:

“Hello. Unfortunately, negative feedback about your establishment has been left by us. And will appear in the future, one review a day. We sincerely apologize for our actions, and would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice. The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive. We are begging you to send us Google Play gift card worth $75.”

The email then directs the restaurant to buy the card from PayPal. “After selling this gift card we can earn approximately $50, which is three weeks of income for one family,” the scammers go on to claim.

[…]

According to The New York Times story, Google is aware of the scam. “A Google Maps spokeswoman said Monday that the platform was investigating the situation and had begun removing reviews that violated its policies” which include that reviews must be based on actual experiences, according to story.

That might be little comfort to restaurants still being scammed.

The Texas Restaurant Association has contacted Google to seek resolution. It also is working with restaurant partners such as Yelp and OpenTable to put together guidance it will share on its website and newsletter for how Texas restaurants should deal with the scam, said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, chief public affairs officer for the restaurant association.

In the meantime, she recommended that restaurants monitor their reviews, especially on Google, and flag those that appear fraudulent. She also said that communicating with the public that the restaurant has been scammed can be effective, especially leveraging the goodwill of the dining public.

Here’s an example of what the exchange looks like, via Field & Tides on Facebook.

Infuriating that Google hasn’t been taking these down, if you ask me. I don’t know what more they need to take action, but I hope they do it quickly. In the meantime, check and see if your favorite places have been hit by this, and give them a proper Google review to balance them out if you can. The Takeout has more.

Stalking Coco, the food delivery robot

A delightful tale by Chron food editor Emma Balter, who was determined to prove to herself that Coco the food delivery robot actually worked as advertised, even on Houston’s notoriously un-pedestrian (and presumably food-delivery-robot) streets. It took a couple of tries to place an order that would actually be delivered by Coco, and we pick up the story from there:

I placed an order on DoorDash, this time for the Diavola pizza and a Coca-Cola, and loudly squealed when I received a text leading me to a Coco tracker page. Exactly 32 minutes later, we saw a Bollo staffer load a pizza and a Coke into a Coco, which departed less than a minute later.

Coco whizzed out of the restaurant’s parking lot onto the sidewalk on West Alabama Street, and within the first 10 feet of its journey, encountered a pronounced step between two slabs of uneven pavement. Coco bumped against it but was immediately able to surmount the obstacle. I was very impressed.

It careened around the corner onto Greenbriar Drive and picked up speed, so much so that I had to break out into a slight jog to keep up with it. Two minutes later, Coco was faced with an orange cone and yellow caution tape; it paused briefly and went around it on the street shoulder. Another minute went by, and Coco was met with protruding tree roots. It slowed down almost to a stop, then awkwardly but successfully navigated past it. Coco sped up again—at which point I was convinced it was taunting me for doubting it. By the time we reached Westheimer Road, I was out of breath from running after it, although it was unclear if this was due to me being unfit, giggling uncontrollably, or both. (I was humbled to later find out that Coco only travels at a maximum speed of 5 MPH.)

Once at Westheimer, Coco arrived at a crossroads, literally: How would the little fella get to the other side of the busy street? It hung out, facing the road in front of Kevin Spearman Design, for about 30 seconds as cars whooshed by in both directions. It moved another 10 feet to a different spot, before getting barked at by a dog, then giving up on its perch a minute and a half later. Coco retraced its steps for almost a whole block, but just as I thought it might have been returning to the restaurant, defeated, it darted in front of traffic in a blatant jaywalk, narrowly avoiding a silver Chevy Cruz traveling westbound toward it.

“Oh my god! Oh my god!” I exclaimed as I witnessed the scene, recorded in a video that is now on Chron’s TikTok for posterity.

Read the rest and judge for yourself if this is a better idea than your typical human-delivered meal, picking it up yourself, or (vastly my preference) eating at the restaurant. I too have seen a couple of social media posts from friends who have observed a Coco robot in the wild, but I have not yet witnessed one. Have you seen or interacted with a Coco, whether in the city or out in the woods? Leave a comment and let us know.

Who wants to have their dinner delivered by a robot?

Here’s your chance.

Heads up, Houston: the robots are coming.

Coco, the Los Angeles-based business that offers a remotely piloted delivery service, has hit the streets of Houston with its food-delivery bots as part of its expansion to targeted markets. Fueled by a recent funding round that garnered the company $56 million, Coco has already launched in Austin; its expansion plans also include rolling out bots in the Dallas and Miami markets soon.

Here in Houston, locals can look forward to delivery at restaurants including Brookstreet BBQ, Rustika Cafe, Ruggles Black, and Trendy Dumpling, according to the company.

Here’s how it works: Customers place a restaurant order like usual, then a Coco bot — operated by a “trained pilot” — drives to the restaurant to pick it up. The restaurant staff loads the bot as soon as the food is ready, and Coco arrives at the customer’s door within 15 minutes. Each bot is locked until it reaches the customer, so no one can tamper with your pizza or egg rolls.

The company claims that compared with traditional food-delivery methods, its bots decrease the time it takes food to reach the customer by 30 percent, and that the service has an on-time delivery rate of 97 percent.

Of course, Coco bots won’t be zipping up I-10 for a long-haul delivery; they’re meant to work at shorter distances and on mostly pedestrian paths. As the company’s website notes, “A surprisingly large portion of deliveries are done within less than 2 miles. We believe there is no reason to have a 3,000-pound car deliver a burrito over short distances.”

That “trained pilot” is a person working from home, according to Engadget. You can see a little video on the Coco homepage, and there you can see why this is a thing that will be using sidewalks and bike trails and other pedestrian-friendly routes to make its deliveries. You can already get things like pizza and groceries and prescriptions delivered via automated vehicles, so the concept here isn’t novel, but the method is new. I’m the type of person who’d rather walk to the restaurant and eat the food there, at an outdoor table if possible, but I have never claimed to be representative of anything. We’ll see how well this works.

Council adopts vape extension to smoking ban

Good.

The city outlawed vaping in public spaces Wednesday, amending Houston’s smoking ordinance to include electronic cigarettes.

City Council voted 16-0 to approve the amendment, proposed last year by the Houston Health Department in response to growing scientific consensus on the dangers of vaping.

The amendment adds all types of e-cigarette devices — including vape pens, electronic pipes and hookahs — to the smoking ban, which bars cigarettes from enclosed public places and seating areas and within 25 feet of any building. It does not affect hookah bars or other private areas where smoking is permitted.

“You can now go into bars and restaurants without fear that someone vaping nearby will be impacting your health,” said District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, chair of the council’s Quality of Life Committee.

Gallegos cited the public health benefit of regulating e-cigarettes, which are filled with a liquid nicotine derived from tobacco that becomes an aerosol when the user inhales. Ultra-fine particles emitted by the vapor and toxins from the devices’ heating elements can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, federal studies suggest, even when nicotine-free vape liquid is used.

The council member offered few details on how the ban will be enforced, but said law enforcement would likely extend a “grace period” to vape users in the coming months.

See here for the background. As I recall, there were grace periods for each of the previous additions to the smoking ban. There was some fuss about enforcement with the previous amendments as well, though from today’s vantage point it hardly seems like it amounted to anything. My expectation is that places will update their signage, some people will need to be tapped on the shoulder and informed of the revised ordinance, and modulo an unhappy vaper or two that will likely be the extent of it. I suppose in a world where a non-trivial number of people were giant assholes about wearing masks during COVID that some vapers could make public displays of resistance that are designed to go viral. I’m not too worried about that, but I will note it because I can’t say it won’t happen. I don’t expect it to, but you never know.

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.

City Council to consider adding vapes to smoking ordinance

Sounds reasonable. I’ll be interested to hear what the opponents have to say.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a proposal to bar the use of e-cigarettes and any kind of vaping in public spaces under Houston’s smoking ordinance.

The move would update the city’s rules for public smoking, which were written before electronic cigarettes existed, Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villarreal said Monday.

Houston currently bars tobacco smoking in enclosed public places and seating areas, and within 25 feet of any building. Smoking in covered bus stops and light rail stops also is prohibited.

The measure would add all forms of vaping — including electronic cigars, pipes and hookahs — to the smoking ban, enacted in 2007 to reduce public secondhand smoke exposure.

Health officials proposed the amendment in light of rising e-cigarette use among middle and high school students, Villarreal said. As many as one in 10 Houston middle school students vape, according to health department data.

[…]

While scientists do not have a full picture of the long-term health effects of using e-cigarettes, research suggests the ultra-fine particles within the vapor can increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer, said Ronald Peters, Jr., a retired professor at the University of Texas at Houston’s School of Public Health who studied teen vaping behaviors. Banning public e-cigarette use is a common-sense way to reduce the risk of exposing children and vulnerable people to those potentially harmful vapors, he said.

In addition to removing vaping aerosols from public settings, the ban would have the added benefit of reducing kids’ exposure to all forms of nicotine use, he said.

If you’ve been around this blog for awhile, you know I’ve closely followed the various efforts to restrict smoking in public places. I’m all in favor of such things, though to my surprise in searching for the origin of the city’s ban, which was first proposed in 2004 for restaurants, it turns out I was an incrementalist at first. Go figure. After nearly two decades of lived experience, I see no real problem with keeping all forms of smoke away from the general public. Vaping is less objectionable than tobacco, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that the availability of e-cigarettes has enabled some smokers to transition to something less damaging to them. But they have also served as an on-ramp to nicotine for kids, and if there’s a case to be made that limiting where vaping is allowed will help reduce its appeal to kids, I’m all for it.

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out at Council. There was a lot of opposition from some folks back in the day, mostly bars and musicians who worried about the effect on their livelihood, but all these years later I have a hard time imagining that kind of organized resistance to this. Still, it took several tries to get to where we are, with small steps taken each time, so it would not surprise me to see a somewhat watered down version of this pass at first, to be revisited at a later date. We’ll see if I get any press releases from a pro-vape/anti-ban constituency like I did with regular smoking back in the day.

UPDATE: A later version of the story contains this bit of interest:

Most restaurants support including e-cigarettes in the ban, said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Great Houston Chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association. Health officials consulted the chapter on the proposed amendment in December, she said.

“Many restaurants have already been enforcing a no-vaping rule at their own discretion,” Stewart said Tuesday afternoon. “Overall, what we have seen is most restaurants have treated vaping like cigarettes. They have not allowed it.”

Definitely a difference from before, especially for restaurants that also had bars. No guarantees, but that will help the ordinance get passed.

Alcohol to go passes both chambers

Off to get a signature.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed a measure to permanently allow Texans to purchase alcohol to-go from restaurants, advancing a shared goal of Gov. Greg Abbott and restaurateurs.

House Bill 1024which cleared the lower chamber last month, would allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders, securing a revenue stream made available to restaurants in the last year during the pandemic intended to help those businesses when they closed their dining areas.

The Senate approved the legislation, filed by Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren, a restaurant owner in Fort Worth, in a 30-1 vote. The measure now heads to Abbott’s desk.

Abbott signed a waiver in March last year to allow to-go alcohol sales. The waiver was originally to last until May 2020, but it was extended indefinitely. As lawmakers began their work during the current legislative session, expanding Texans’ access to booze picked up bipartisan support.

“Making tools for alcohol-to-go permanent will accelerate the industry’s recovery, supporting thousands of jobs and small businesses along the way,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, laying out the bill Wednesday. “Once this provision was placed in through the pandemic, we saw restaurants that were closed down, open back up.”

See here for the background. Not much to say that I haven’t already said. It’s just nice to see at least one positive bill come out of the dumpster fire that is this session.

Space City Safe

I wholeheartedly endorse this.

A new crowdsourced website that allows Houstonians to vet a business or restaurant to see if they are following COVID-19 guidelines has exploded with responses.

The website, Space City Safe, is the brainchild of 25-year-old Heights resident Chris Haseler. Haseler, who works as an engineer, created the website the weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and opened Texas back up 100%.

“I think a lot of Houston was caught off guard by the governor’s announcement,” Haseler said. “A lot of people don’t feel safe quite yet.”

Haseler’s website allows users to input information about a Houston business or restaurant, including if they are requiring masks, social distancing and their capacity level. It also lets users leave comments about their experiences, link to where they got their information (such as a restaurant’s Instagram page), and make corrections.

“One of the integral parts of the website is being able to specify the information source, it sort of adds a level of accuracy,” Haseler said. “So you’ll notice for a lot of the website, it’s the business owner themselves who have put up their COVID restrictions.”

The site has grown to house just over 600 businesses. The boom in responses is not something Haseler expected – he created the website as a challenge for himself, “just for fun to learn about something new.”

“I certainly was not expecting this to take off at all,” Haseler said. “The fact that it has garnered so much attention and so many users has been a surprise and a lot of fun to deal with.”

Hey, if it’s up to businesses to decide how they want to handle it, then it’s up to the rest of us to decide what kind of response from businesses we want to support. I’d much rather know this ahead of time. The one piece of data on the site that I’d have included is whether there’s an outdoor option, but this is fine. I applaud the effort. If you don’t see your favorite place there, you can send its info to Space City Safe yourself. At some point we’ll need websites like this less, but we’re not at that point just yet. In the meantime, keep yourself informed so you can keep yourself safe.

Booze to go set to go

Good.

The Texas House has passed legislation that would allow restaurants to sell alcohol to go beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

The chamber signed off on House Bill 1024 to permanently allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders and secure a revenue stream made available to restaurants in the last year in an effort to help those businesses when they closed their dining areas.

Initial approval of the bill came Wednesday, and a formal approval came a day later by a 144-1 vote. The legislation will now head to the Senate, where a version of the measure must still be approved by a committee before it can be considered by the full chamber.

Gov. Greg Abbott originally signed a waiver last March to allow to-go alcohol sales. The waiver was originally to last until last May, but it was extended indefinitely. As lawmakers began their work during the current legislative session, expanding Texans’ access to booze picked up rare bipartisan support.

[…]

The new, permanent alcohol-to-go option could benefit the restaurant industry after it has faced an excruciating year during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Texas Restaurant Association, 700,000 restaurant employees in Texas lost their jobs in the early days of the pandemic, and thousands of Texas restaurants have closed.

“The TRA is thrilled that restaurants are one step closer to offering alcoholic drinks to-go on a permanent basis,” the association said in a statement following the House vote. “Texans overwhelmingly support alcohol to-go, and the entire industry has rallied around the practice to ensure it is implemented safely.”

See here for the previous update. While nothing is ever certain, I expect this to breeze through the Senate, and we already know Greg Abbott supports it. I saw someone say on Twitter that we may not be able to get other things done but at least we’ll have drinks to go. I’m more upbeat about that – I think this will be a needed boon for the restaurants, and anything that brings us a step closer to dismantling the ridiculous tangle of alcohol laws we have in this state is a positive – but I do recognize that this is likely one of the few laws we’re going to get this session that’s actually worth celebrating. May as well enjoy the wins where you can, there ain’t gonna be many of them.

What can we expect from the maskless mandate?

More COVID, obviously.

The Centers for Disease Control is increasing pressure on Republican leaders in states like Texas that have eased COVID restrictions, publishing a study on Friday showing evidence that the measures — such as the mask requirement that Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded this week — clearly decrease COVID cases and deaths, while opening up restaurants causes them to spike.

“We have seen this movie before: When prevention measures like mask mandates are rolled back, cases go up,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “I know the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to everyday activities is appealing, but we’re not there yet.”

[…]

On Friday, Walensky continued to sound the alarm. She said that COVID cases and deaths have started to plateau for more than a week at levels similar to the late summer surge — just as some states are easing restrictions that helped drive those cases down.

White House officials said Friday the trend is concerning, especially as progress has been made on vaccinations. Nearly 55 percent of people 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, up from just 8 percent six weeks ago, senior White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said.

More than 3.5 million Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and nearly 2 million have been fully vaccinated, out of a population of 29 million. Still, the state ranks among the lowest for the percentage of people vaccinated, at 13 percent.

“It’s better to spike the football once you’re safely in the end zone, not once you’ve made a couple of completions,” Slavitt said.

The CDC released a new report on Friday that showed COVID cases and death rates decreased within 20 days of the implementation of state mask mandates. That progress was quickly reversed with the opening of restaurants, however, the report said. COVID cases rose between 41 and 100 days after states allowed dining in restaurants and daily death rates rose between 61 and 100 days after.

“Policies that require universal mask use and restrict any on-premises restaurant dining are important components of a comprehensive strategy to reduce exposure to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the study said. “Such efforts are increasingly important given the emergence of highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants in the United States.”

I think what’s so infuriating about this is that we really are in the home stretch now. Texas is at the back of the pack in terms of vaccination rate (though Harris County is doing reasonably well), but we are making steady progress. Anecdotally, I know so many more people now who have gotten at least their first shot compared to just a month ago. It would have been so easy to say that we just need to hold on until (say) Memorial Day or something like that, when we can expect to have a significant number of people who have been vaccinated, then we can really begin to ease up. We can emphasize outdoor events first, and be clear about when masks aren’t needed (when everyone involved has been vaccinated) versus when they should still be worn. We’ve come this far, we can see where we want to be, we just need to finish the job. Why was that so hard?

You may say, as Abbott was quoted in the story, that we haven’t actually enforced the mask mandate in Texas that just urging people to wear them while explicitly not requiring it isn’t all that different. I’d say first that the reason we haven’t enforced it is because Greg Abbott was so frightened by the likes of Shelley Luther that he cowardly backed down from any kind of official enforcement. What that has meant in practice is that responsibility for mask requirements falls squarely on the shoulders of frontline workers, who at least had the backup of an executive order when confronting some maskhole. But now even that is going away, which means we’ll have a lot more of this:

Fidel Minor, a Houston Metro bus driver, said Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask rollback will incite “mass chaos” on city buses as drivers like him try to enforce federal mask requirements for transit.

“It’s already a hard enough job as it is without having conflicting directives,” said Minor, a driver for Houston Metro.

Abbott relaxed requirements on businesses Tuesday, lifting statewide mask mandates and reducing capacity restrictions on restaurants and retailers. The order, effective March 10, sent chills through frontline workers across the region who say they still face risks on the job.

Asking customers to wear masks means being met with a daily dose of attitude, said Stacy Brown, bakery manager at Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a grocery store on the ground floor of One Park Place downtown. Now she fears that attitude will spread.

“We’re gonna have people come into the store, not wanting to comply just because of what (Abbott) says,” she said, noting she feels it’s especially important that her customers wear masks because as a diabetic she’s in a high-risk group.

[…]

David Lee, a deli manager at Kroger in Galveston who got sick with the virus in December, said it’s scary to know he and his colleagues will be surrounded by more of the maskless customers he believes exposed him to the virus in the first place. “I think (Abbott) should wait at least two more months,” he said. “It’s going to be scary now.”

For its part, the family-run Phoenicia will keep its mask mandate at its two Houston stores and restaurants, said owner Haig Tcholakian. Requiring masks inside his stores is about health and safety for staff and customers, first and foremost, he said. But also because when workers get sick or exposed, it affects business, too.

“It disrupts operations quite a bit, and if there are multiple (illnesses) across all businesses that would probably limit us and make us scramble to make up for that,” he said.

Tcholakian said he and his employees have to ask people to leave a handful of times a week. Like Brown, his bakery manager, he’s concerned that enforcement will get more difficult now. “We’ll have to prepare for it.”

For Teresa McClatchie, an escalator monitor at Bush Intercontinental Airport, the governor’s policy change seems at odds with the facts on the ground. She said her coworkers are still ill with the virus — one may need to stay on oxygen on an ongoing basis because of damage the virus did to her lungs.

“We still have some employees out,” she said, “and some, they may not be back.”

The number of restaurants and other businesses that will continue to require masks is inspiring and may just help blunt the effect of Abbott’s foolishness, but it still shouldn’t fall on these people to ensure that the jackasses out there don’t endanger them or others.

And for those of you who may be mad at HEB for urging but not requiring masks at their stores, it’s exactly with this in mind that they made this call.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland has the explanation why the store won’t require customers to wear masks in light of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday announcement.

While it has the power to require customers to wear masks before entering, McClelland said H-E-B won’t take that step – in part because of belligerent customers who have caused nearly 2,000 in-store incidents surrounding masks at Houston stores alone.

If a customer walks into the store without a mask, a worker will ask them to put one on, McClelland said. If they don’t have one, they will be offered a mask.

If they still refuse to put one on, McClelland said “we are not going to escalate.”

“What’s important to me is, I’ve got to ensure for the physical safety of both my employees and customers in the store,” McClelland said. “That’s what we have been doing, and frankly it’s the same thing we’ll continue to do.”

I confess, I recently yelled at one dipshit at HEB who was walking around with his mask on his chin. It wasn’t smart, and it wasn’t considerate of the other customers in the yogurt aisle who had to be wondering if something was about to go down, but I was so mad and I felt like someone needed to do something. McClelland is right about not escalating, and I will just have to keep that in mind. And I have already spent more time and energy thinking about this than Greg Abbott ever will.

More maskless mandate stuff

A bit of a roundup, because there’s so much out there.

Three of Gov. Greg Abbott’s four coronavirus medical advisers say they weren’t directly consulted prior to lifting mask mandate

In April 2020, an optimistic Gov. Greg Abbott announced at the Texas Capitol that he would soon take initial steps to allow businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

The loosening of restrictions, his team said, would be informed by a statewide “strike force,” composed of business leaders and four medical experts who would advise the governor on a safe, phased plan.

“Every recommendation, every action by the governor will be informed and based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers,” James Huffines, a lobbyist who Abbott named as chair of the strike force, said at the time. “Everything we do will be medically sound. These nationally recognized advisers are leading experts in their fields and we will rely on their knowledge and expertise every step of the way.”

Since then, Texas has suffered through two major case surges and thousands of deaths. Abbott imposed a mask order in July, and vaccine distribution has begun to give residents a reason for hope. On Tuesday, Abbott made waves again by announcing the repeal of his mask order and declaring “it is now time to open Texas 100%.”

This time, however, Abbott’s team of medical advisers appeared to play a minimal role in the decision. Three of the four said on Wednesday that Abbott did not directly consult with them prior to the drastic shift in policy. The fourth said he couldn’t say whether the move was a good idea.

One such adviser expressed overt reservations about the move.

“I don’t think this is the right time,” Dr. Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, said in a statement. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

McClellan said that he was “not consulted before the announcement.”

Hey, remember the Strike Force? Yeah, no, nobody does. Either you’re going to tell Greg Abbott what he wants to hear, or he won’t listen. What’s the point?

Texas’ largest cities will keep requiring masks in municipal buildings even after statewide mandate ends

Mayors in some of Texas’ biggest cities announced that they will still mandate the use of masks in municipal buildings, even after the statewide mask order ends next week.

Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso’s leaders announced Wednesday and Thursday that masks will be required to enter city-owned indoor spaces like libraries, police and fire department headquarters, convention centers and transportation hubs.

“I am going to issue an order mandating masks at all city-owned buildings. We have to do what we are legally allowed to do to get people to wear masks,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said on Twitter Thursday morning. “We also still need to practice social distancing. And we still need to avoid taking unnecessary risks. The pandemic is not over.”

[…]

In an email, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze confirmed that cities are allowed to take this measure “just like private companies can with their property.”

I’m sure he’ll get the Legislature right on that, though.

Speaking of private companies, Texas businesses must decide whether to require face masks. Some worry they could lose customers either way.

“I do feel that we’ll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that’s just part of the environment that we are in now,” said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. “It’s either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don’t wear masks and you piss a couple people off.”

At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott’s announcement because he’s so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.

“By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy,” Ng said. “We don’t deserve that.”

[…]

Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant’s safety requirements.

“This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing,” Ha said.

There are many ways in this world to be an asshole. Yelling at a retail or restaurant worker who asks you to please observe their mask-wearing policy is one of the most effective ways to identify yourself as among the world’s biggest assholes.

For some Texans who lost loved ones to the coronavirus, lifting the mask mandate is a “slap in the face”.

What confuses Delia Ramos about Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to cast off coronavirus restrictions in Texas isn’t his order to let more people into restaurants. The Brownsville school counselor knows people are hurting economically.

But with more than 43,000 dead in Texas — including her husband — is wearing a mask in public too much to ask? At the least, it could take pressure off the medical systems and help prevent more people from dying, she said.

“It’s not about taking away anybody’s job or making anybody else suffer financially because everybody has their families to take care of,” said Ramos, who lost her husband Ricardo to the coronavirus last year.

“People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks,” she said.

[…]

In nearby McAllen, Ana Flores watched Abbott’s announcement in disbelief on Tuesday. For the 39-year-old, who works at an adult day care, it immediately brought back memories of when Abbott loosened COVID-19 rules in May — weeks before infections surged and devastated the predominantly Hispanic or Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She got severely sick with the virus. Her husband of ten years, a truck driver, who was cautious and “knew a little bit about everything,” was hospitalized and died at age 45.

“For [those of] us who lost a loved one, for us who survived — because I got pretty sick as well … it’s like a slap in the face,” Flores said of Abbott’s announcement, noting his “happy” tone and the “clapping” people around him.

For Abbott to say “it’s time for us to get on with our lives, everything to go back to normal,” she said, “normal is not going to happen for us ever again.”

She said it felt like Abbott “doesn’t care” that counties in the border are “still struggling” even if other parts of Texas are doing better.

Mandy Vair, whose father, a hospice chaplain, died with the virus last summer, saw the order and wondered: Did his death not matter? She and other family members were limiting social activities and wearing masks, but were infected in November and Vair was sick for weeks. Her family still hasn’t had a memorial ceremony for her late father because they don’t feel it’s safe to gather.

She said Abbott’s decision made her think, “He got his immunization and maybe all of those that are important to him already got the immunization. So [now] the rest have to kind of fend for themselves until their turn comes up,” she said. “We have to be responsible for ourselves — well, haven’t we been trying to be responsible for ourselves the whole time?”

Though I have to admit, Greg Abbott’s method is pretty effective as well. For more stories, if you’re not fully rounded up yet, here’s a collection from the Chron.

Reactions to the maskless mandate

Let’s start with the doctors, since clearly they weren’t consulted.

Houston-area doctors and medical professionals reacted with dismay to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday decision to roll back the state’s mask mandate and other precautions against COVID-19.

“I had a pretty strong visceral reaction — like PTSD,” said Dr. Matt Dacso, an internist at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “I can think of no other word but incomprehensible… Everybody is hurting, but gosh, man. The masks were doing a lot for us.”

Dacso said the order was a huge hit to morale, coming almost exactly one year after the first recorded case in New York. His team had been celebrating the progress made since then — until they heard about Abbott’s order.

[…]

“It’s true that Texas has been vaccinating people,” said Peter Hotez, vaccine researcher at Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “But after the recent freeze, we rank at the bottom of states in the percentage of people we’ve vaccinated: Only 13 percent of Texans have had their first dose.

“I would have preferred to wait a couple of weeks to reopen while we see how these new variants play out here, and so that we could catch up to the rest of the country in terms of vaccinations,” Hotez continued.

While people who have been vaccinated may feel tempted to go out without their masks, they shouldn’t, said Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association.

A vaccination means they’re less likely to face severe complications from COVID-19, not that they’re less likely to catch it and infect others. COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are still studying the rate of transmission and infection in people who have been immunized, and trial data may not be available until the spring.

“Fully vaccinating 1.8 million people is still a huge number, but it’s far from getting anywhere near where we say things are going to be contained,” Fite said.

Local hospitals say they are not planning to change their masking requirements.

“The COVID-19 virus and its effects will be with us for a long time,” St. Luke’s Health officials said in a Tuesday afternoon statement. To ensure the safety and health of our communities, we urge people to continue to wear masks and practice other precautions like hand washing and social distancing, in addition to getting vaccinated. Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the virus, which is why masks are still required at all St Luke’s Health facilities.”

See here for the background. Local health officials were equally vehement.

Keep wearing your mask and taking COVID-19 safety precautions, local health experts said Tuesday, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on businesses.

“Despite the impending removal of the state mask mandate, we must continue our vigilance with masking, distancing, and hand washing,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Travis County Interim Health Authority. “These remain critical in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”

Expressing concerns about highly contagious variants of the virus and the need for local health officials to maintain some authority over their local situations — which vary widely from county to county — doctors and health officials cautioned that Texans should not take Abbott’s announcement as a signal to relax the behavior that has lead to a recent decrease in coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations.

[…]

Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority, said it’s premature to abandon safety precautions and hopes Texans can stay patient even in the absence of statewide rules.

“I think that people have a lot more common sense than we give them credit for, but … it’s very hard for human beings not to start socializing and to stop wearing masks,” he said.”I understand they are looking for any sign they can go back to the old ways, but I would just remind them that we’re in the bottom of the ninth, two runs out, and we’re almost there. This isn’t the time to put the bench in. This is the time to continue with the A-Team. Very soon, we’ll be there.”

Others said that while they’re glad Abbott did stress that Texans should stay cautious, the mandate provided an important function that the state may not be ready for yet.

“I think it’s a little bit early, in my opinion, to be removing the masking requirement,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. “I would have preferred to see our numbers lower, and I would have preferred to see more people vaccinated before we took that leap.”

Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the state medical association’s COVID-19 task force, agreed it was too soon for Texans to relax their safety practices, adding he is especially concerned about the increasing spread of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, which is thought to be more contagious and perhaps more deadly.

None of this should be a surprise. I’m sure there are some doctors out there who are Team No Mask, but as a group this is obvious. The Texas Medical Association took a diplomatic path:

Restaurants were also cautious, though they have clear reasons to be happy about the full reopening stuff.

Operators wondered if they would be ready to return so quickly to full service; if they could hire workers fast enough to accommodate full capacity; if their purveyors would be ready to service increased orders for food and other goods. And, most crucially, how mask wearing would be handled by workers and a dining public no longer required to cover up.

There were no clear answers Tuesday.

“Personally, I didn’t expect him to say that today. I thought we wouldn’t see it until sometime in the summertime,” said [Levi] Goode, whose restaurant portfolio also includes Goode Co. Seafood, Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina and Armadillo Palace. “We’ve adopted some great practice from the safety standpoint during the pandemic, and many of those will remain intact until we feel comfortable we can move in another direction.”

But without a state mandate that masks are required, next Wednesday will bring uncertainty.

Ricardo Molina, president and co-owner of Molina’s Cantina restaurants, said that he probably will not enforce masks for his servers, but that those who choose to wear one will be able to do so. He added that customers will ultimately dictate how the staff will come down on masks.

“We’re probably going to find the vast majority (of customers) are ready to see masks go away,” Molina said. “If people are ready to go all-out business as usual, we’re ready to do that as well.”

Paul Miller, owner of Gr8 Plate Hospitality which includes The Union Kitchen and Jax Grill restaurants, anticipates a gradual return to practices that existed before COVID-19.

“Our primary concern is for our staff and our guests, and while we certainly appreciate the opportunity to go back to 100 percent and the governor has removed the mask mandate, we are going to continue to uphold our safety and sanitation protocols as we slowly but surely move into this new phase of our business,” he said.

How the restaurant industry will negotiate that new phase wasn’t clear on Tuesday. While the Texas Restaurant Association celebrated Abbott’s announcement, it was quick to say that Texas restaurants must “remain vigilant so we do not slide backward.”

“Consumers will only go where they feel safe, and so restaurants must continue to be very thoughtful and implement the safety protocols that will enable them to maintain and build trust with their consumers and employees,” the association stated.

Yeah, that. It’s a thing I’ve been saying for months – you have to beat the virus if you really want to reopen. People will not want to patronize businesses if they don’t feel safe doing so. That as much as anything is why I would have expected a more gradual reopening, one that takes into account the fact that we still have a lot of vaccinations to administer, and still have a lot of people getting sick and going to the hospital. Just declare your intention to take the victory lap. What was the rush?

Personally, I’ve been eating at a couple of places that have outdoor seating, and also doing takeout. I will continue to do that for at least the next few months. The Chron’s Alison Cook is surveying restaurants around town to see what their response is; her initial story on that is here. Quite a few are currently planning to stay with what they’re doing now, which surprises me a little, but in a good way. I’ll be very interested to see how the wider public reacts. For the record, the subset of barbecue joint owners and brewery owners were not impressed and seem to be determined to keep doing what they’ve been doing for now.

School districts have a choice to make.

Local school boards will have the authority to decide whether to require students over the age of 10 to wear masks under current Texas Education Agency health guidance, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he was lifting the state’s mask mandate and reopening businesses at 100 percent capacity.

In the governor’s executive order, which takes effect March 10, he wrote that public schools “may operate” under minimum health protocols found in Texas Education Agency guidance, and that private schools and colleges are “encouraged to establish similar standards.”

Under the previous mask mandate, all students older than 10 were required to wear masks on school property.

TEA’s most recent guidance, issued in December, says that outside the soon-to-expire mask mandate, school systems “may require the use of masks or face shields for adults or students for whom it is developmentally appropriate.”

Houston and Fort Bend ISDs issued statements Tuesday afternoon saying they would continue to require masks and face coverings at all schools and district facilities.

“This requirement is consistent with the advice of health professional and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” HISD officials said in a statement.

We got a robocall from HISD Tuesday afternoon informing us of this. It’s the clear and obviously correct call, and as someone whose kids are attending school in person, I’d have been massively pissed if they had done otherwise.

Metro riders will need to keep their masks on.

Despite state officials loosening restrictions related to COVID, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said requirements for face coverings on riders and employees will continue.

“Metro has no plans at this time to drop the mask requirement for people riding our system,” transit agency spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Since June, Metro has required masks for anyone using the system. Last month, the Federal Transit Administration issued guidance that all transportation providers — buses, trains, ferries and planes — prohibit anyone from riding without a mask.

For those who do not have a face covering and want to hop on a bus, Metro drivers will offer them a mask. Bus drivers and others have handed out 2 million masks along the Metro system, agency officials said.

Good call. This, not so much.

H-E-B will urge, but not require, customers to wear masks inside its grocery stores in Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded his statewide mask mandate Tuesday, the company said.

The grocer and retailer, however, will still require employees and vendors to wear masks in the stores.

“Although there is no longer a statewide mask order, H-E-B believes it is important that masks be worn in public spaces until more Texans and our Partners have access to the Covid-19 vaccine,” Lisa Helfman, the retailer’s local public affairs director, said in a statement.

I’ve already seen a few people react negatively to this on Twitter. I try to do my HEB shopping early in the morning, to avoid larger crowds. I may need to push it a little earlier now. Yes, we could order curbside – we have done it a couple of times – but I like the in store experience. Or at least, I have liked it. Don’t make me regret my choices, HEB.

What are your expectations? Will you avoid or patronize places that lift their mask requirements? The Texas Signal and Dos Centavos have more.

On capping restaurant delivery app fees

Fine by me, but I’ll bet more than fifteen percent of my most recent delivery tab that this does not go anywhere.

Rep. Carl Sherman

High delivery fees by third-party apps, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, are often cited by restaurant operators as a source of financial strain, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. A new bill filed in the 87th Texas Legislature is seeking to cap the fees food delivery services charge restaurants at 15 percent.

The industry standard hovers around 30 percent of a customer’s order, depending on the platform. This would be significantly reduced across the state if the bill passes.

“This is one of my wishes for 2021,” says Alex Au-yeung, the chef and owner of Phat Eatery in Katy.

Au-yeung used Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats at one point, but he got rid of them even before the pandemic. Phat Eatery now operates its own delivery system. With razor-thin profit margins, a fee that high is untenable for restaurants, he says: “If you give 30 percent away, how can we survive?”

Rep. Carl Sherman Sr. introduced H.B. 598 in the House after he heard from restaurant owners in his DeSoto-area district that the high delivery fees were creating hardship for their business.

“The impact of COVID exacerbated the problem,” Sherman says. With dining rooms closed, then reopened at lower capacity, restaurants had to rely on takeout and delivery, often turning to third-party apps. “They were unable to factor in the levied costs from these delivery services,” he says.

Chef Justin Turner closed all four locations of his popular Bernie’s Burger Bus restaurants this year. While he said there were many factors at play, high delivery fees were one of them. Turner signed up for the services because he saw the convenience of delivery become increasingly popular with customers. He said representatives for the companies told him he would see an increase in business by being on the platforms, but he hasn’t found that to be the case. Instead, Turner noticed sales simply shifting away from dine-in to carryout over time. The pandemic made this worse.

“People want the convenience,” Turner says. “Especially in a COVID world, being able to get food dropped off at their door without talking to a person or touching a person.”

Turner adds that these fees also affect the customer. He’s already seen some restaurants increasing to-go prices to make up for the high commission from delivery apps. In his opinion, most food doesn’t travel that well, so people are paying more money for lesser quality than is offered by dining in person.

[…]

Besides the high commission, Au-yeung had other gripes about the delivery apps. His team couldn’t communicate directly with people ordering through the platforms, which made the restaurant’s mission of great customer service impossible. And while he made the decision to leave DoorDash, he found it impossible to take Phat Eatery down from their website. He says he’s tried to contact the company, to no avail. To turn people away from ordering through the app, he edited the menu items to read “Do not order here.” He also jacked up the prices to discourage people.

One service Au-yeung likes, though, is Favor Fleet, an offshoot of the local delivery app now owned by H-E-B. If the restaurant is busy and short-staffed for deliveries, he can request drivers from Favor Fleet on-demand, for a flat fee of $7.50 per order. “That, I can deal with,” he says.

Turner says he favors the bill’s passage but is skeptical about its chances in the Legislature.

“I don’t think, with two publicly traded companies and lobbyists, that this is going to make it further,” he says. “You’re asking them to cut their profits, that they’ve been making for a long time now, in half.”

I suspect that is absolutely correct. This will be smothered by lobbyists before it ever has a chance to breathe. It’s still worth bringing up. Personally, I never use delivery services for takeout. I pick it up myself, which is the only way I can be sure that the money I’m spending goes entirely to the restaurant. It helps that 90% of the time I’m ordering from a neighborhood place, but still. And when this damn pandemic is over, I’m going back to dining in most of the time. Restaurant food tastes best when it’s right out of the kitchen, and no amount of convenience makes up for that to me. Your mileage may vary.

Drinks to go on the legislative menu

Looks likely to succeed.

As the 87th legislature kicks into high gear in Austin tomorrow, a new bill introduced in both the Texas House and Senate is aiming to make to-go alcohol from restaurants and bars permanent.

Venues in Texas have been able to sell beer, wine and liquor with takeout food orders since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when Gov. Greg Abbott signed an emergency waiver in an effort to help the struggling service industry as it navigated shutdowns and other safety regulations.

The governor allowed to-go mixed drinks in June 2020 after bar and restaurant operators lobbied him to ease the restrictions further. Before that, many offered cocktail kits with the liquor in its original package.

Sen. Kelly Hancock and Rep. Charlie Green filed Senate Bill 298 and House Bill 1094, respectively, on Jan. 7. The bills would allow Texans to buy alcohol from licensed venues, via pick-up and delivery, for off-premise consumption.

“Without Governor Abbott’s temporary waiver allowing restaurants to safely sell alcohol with their to-go food orders, Texas would have seen many more restaurants – small and large – close their doors and lose their employees because of this pandemic,” said Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), in a statement. “We know the road to recovery will be long, which is precisely why we need tools like alcohol to-go to become permanent.”

Here’s SB298; HB1094 had not been filed as of when I went looking. You know I support this, and from all evidence so does Greg Abbott, which is perhaps a bit more important. There will likely be some concern about the potential for increased drunk driving, but we do have open container laws, and I’m not aware of any increases in DUI since May when the prohibition on drinks to go was first lifted. There’s still plenty of other things we can do to clean up the byzantine system of alcohol regulation in this state, but I’ll take this as a start.

More COVID restrictions are about to happen in Harris County

Blame Greg Abbott and the virus, in whatever order you prefer.

Houston and its surrounding communities on Tuesday became the latest region to require new emergency restrictions after seven straight days of ballooning coronavirus hospitalizations.

The rollback, mandated under Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency protocols, includes restaurants dropping to 50 percent occupancy from 75 percent, and bars that have not reclassified as restaurants closing immediately. The restrictions remain in place until the region drops below 15 percent COVID-19 hospitalizations for seven straight days.

As of Monday, the latest day of available data, the Houston region was at 19.9 percent, up from just over 13 percent a week earlier. Infections and hospitalizations have been rising steadily in recent weeks, following spikes in other parts of the state and amid holiday gatherings.

All but four of the state’s 22 hospital regions were over 15 percent as of Monday.

Texas Medical Center Hospitals in Houston announced earlier Tuesday that they were putting a hold on certain elective surgeries to save resources for coronavirus patients. Under the governor’s protocols, hospitals are required to postpone elective surgeries that would deplete COVID-19 resources.

“The best thing we can do is take this threshold as a wakeup call,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This is the time to take this for the red alert that it is. We are only going to get through this if we are able to quickly stem the tide of hospitalizations.”

More here.

The rollback comes as Texas Medical Center hospitals already had begun deferring certain elective procedures or readying such a managed reduction strategy, the same one they deployed during the summer when patient censuses spiked. The reduction is not the wholesale delay of elective procedures all Texas hospitals invoked in the spring.

Hospital leaders said Tuesday their systems will continue some elective procedures but suspend those non-urgent cases whose demands on staff and space detract from resources better used to treat COVID-19 patients. Procedures such as mammography and colonoscopy will continue because they don’t tax needed hospital resources, for instance, but some procedures like heart catheterizations might be better delayed.

[…]

The surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations has been relentless. The number of admitted COVID-19 patients in the Houston region has increased for 13 straight weeks, and the 25-county area anchored by Harris County had more than 3,100 hospitalizations on Monday, the highest since July, the peak of the first wave in Texas.

Houston Methodist was just short of 700 COVID-19 patients on Monday. Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom emailed employees that if this trend holds the system will surpass its peak July numbers in a matter of days.

“This may well be among the most challenging few weeks we’ve experienced during this pandemic,” Boom wrote in the email to employees Monday. “Together, we will get through this, but it will be difficult.”

Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann, said his system exceeded 800 patients and should eclipse July numbers by the third week in January. The system’s number of patients has increased three-fold over the last month, he said.

[…]

The COVID-19 positive test rate statewide is now at 20.53 percent. Methodist’s is nearly 32 percent.

Porsa said said Harris Health is about to enter Phase 3 of its surge plans, which involves closing some of its clinics in order to deploy its nurses and other staff at Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson hospitals, both of which are near capacity. He said the leadership is currently determining which clinics to start with.

Hospital officials said they are encouraged that ICUs aren’t being overloaded with COVID-19. They said their staffs have gotten much better, thanks to better treatment options and nine months of experience with the disease, at getting patients discharged faster now compared to early summer.

But with the Houston area now averaging more than 3,300 new COVID-19 cases a day — compared to roughly 2,330 such cases at the pandemic’s height in July — it appears the peak won’t come before late January or February, hospital officials said. They also worry a more contagious strain — not yet identified in Houston but maybe already here — poses an even greater threat ahead.

“January and February are shaping up to be our darkest days, given these record numbers,” said William McKeon, CEO of the TMC. “Hospitals lag behind in feeling the effects of increases in cases so expect the numbers to keep going in the wrong direction before things get better.”

We’re already passing the levels we had seen at the worst of it in July, and we’re probably a few weeks out from hitting the peak this time around. Remember all this next year, when it’s time to vote for our state government.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

COVID-19 is surging across southeast Texas, especially in the suburban counties outside of Houston, which have seen a steady increase in the number of new cases, data show. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, Liberty, and Montgomery counties have all had higher COVID-19 cases per capita than at any point during the pandemic. Chambers County leads the region with 463 virus cases per 10,000 residents, followed by Galveston County with 433 cases per capita, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle.

Experts say the latest spike is driven by a combination of factors — public fatigue from basic COVID-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing, but also more family gatherings in households and larger groups in bars and restaurants. While case counts are consistently much higher than they were in previous weeks and months, they have yet to equal the peak seen during the summer.

Yet the virus’s resurgence in places like Galveston County has put business owners like Railean on edge, owing to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that could trigger new restrictions — including the complete closure of some bars — if regional virus hospitalizations exceed 15 percent of hospitals’ total bed capacity for seven consecutive days. At a time when thousands of restaurants — as many as 10,000 across the state, per the Texas Restaurant Association — have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, further closures could be catastrophic for the industry.

“It would be absolutely devastating to lose this holiday season, devastating to our businesses,” said Gina Spagnola, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce.

The Texas Department of State Health Services divides each of the state’s 254 counties into 22 “trauma service areas” which coordinate systems of emergency healthcare and preparedness for their respective regions. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, and Liberty Counties are part of a nine-county region trauma service area where COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked significantly since early November. On Saturday, the region’s rate of hospital beds in use by covid-infected patients eclipsed the 15 percent mark for the first time before dipping back down to 13 percent by Tuesday.

After seven consecutive days above that 15 percent mark, per Abbott’s executive order, the state health agency would notify county judges in all nine counties of the following restrictions: hospitals must suspend elective surgeries; businesses including restaurants, retail stores, offices gyms, and museums would be limited to 50 percent capacity; and bars and other establishments with more than 51 percent alcohol sales must close.

I wish the Chron had included the comparable number for Harris County. I tried computing it myself based on the Chron’s coronavirus page and 2019 Census numbers I found on Wikipedia, but I got higher totals for Chambers and Galveston than what the story gives. The Harris County number I calculate by the same method was lower than those two, but I don’t know how to adjust them, so we’ll leave it at that. I could still probably make a moral comparison between Harris’s more strenuous effort to combat the virus and the more lax attitude of some neighbors, but I don’t know what that would accomplish at this point. The bulk of the blame for all this remains with Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and the Senate for not passing further COVID relief, which among other things might have helped all these businesses to survive without being open. We can’t wind the clock back and make Trump take COVID seriously, but we could still do the stimulus. Greg Abbott could still tell our Senators to demand that the Senate pass something that would help our state and our businesses. I’m going to keep saying that, every time. On so many levels, it didn’t have to be like this.

Eating on the street

This makes a lot of sense.

Main Street bar owners are expected to take to the streets now that the city has given them the OK.

City Council on Wednesday approved, after some delay, plans for the More Space Main Street program which would close the road to automobiles and allow bars and restaurants to create outdoor seating spaces in the street.

If all goes well, revelers willing to head out could celebrate some Christmas cheer on the road.

“I’m very hopeful we could be up and running for the holiday season,” said Scott Repass, owner of Little Dipper, a bar along Main, and a champion of the proposal to allow outdoor spaces.

The program, which city officials approved as a pilot until March 2022, includes possibly closing Main downtown from Commerce to Rusk, depending on which businesses seek to participate. Rules and regulations for the areas bars and restaurants could carve out on the street are being developed by officials across several city departments, including planning, public works, police, fire and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Barriers would be placed to close Main Street off to traffic, while allowing cross streets to continue for vehicle use.

[…]

Aimed at helping the bars and restaurants weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the plan to close Main builds on the More Space program Houston’s planning department created to allow restaurants to use their parking lots to provide al fresco dining.

Main Street establishments do not have parking spaces, so business owners and the Houston Downtown Management District pushed to use the street.

“We had about 15 businesses that expressed a strong interest in taking part as soon as they are able,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing for the downtown district.

See here for more about the dining-in-parking-lots plan. Main Street already has limited vehicular traffic – it’s one lane each way, you can’t make left turns, and it’s already got a couple of blocks closed off at Main Street Square. Houston can support some form of outdoor dining pretty much all year – you need shade in the summer, and portable heaters at times in the winter, but it’s almost never too cold to be outside, and that’s the key. We’re doing this now out of COVID necessity, but we should have done this a long time ago because it’s a good idea. The Press has more.

The bar conundrum

Ugh.

Halloween this year in downtown Austin was a raucous affair. Nightclubs advertised dancing and drink specials. Thousands of people crowded 6th Street, partying shoulder to shoulder, some with masks and some without.

All of this happened as bars in Austin were still under a shutdown order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Those bars and nightclubs are some of the more than 2,500 so far that have been permitted to reopen by the state on the promise that in the middle of a pandemic, they’d convert themselves into restaurants.

Shuttering Texas’ nearly 8,000 bars has been one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s most drastic safety restrictions. He most recently allowed bars to open in parts of the state where coronavirus hospitalizations are relatively low, with permission from the local officials.

But in areas where bar bans are still being enforced, many of those businesses are still operating like, well, bars. Just weeks after Halloween, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, frustrated health experts and local officials say the loophole is defeating the purpose of the bar ban and could be one reason the state is battling its largest outbreak in months.

“The restrictions were put in place for a reason,” said Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas Public Health. “And if you get around it, if you’re trying to cheat, then you’re sort of eliminating the reduced transmission that you’re trying to achieve.”

Public health officials and experts have said since this spring that bars pose unique dangers for spreading COVID-19. The Texas Medical Association notes it is one of the worst ways to spread the virus.

“Packed bars, where people are talking very close to each other and they’re shouting, or they’re yelling and people are touching a lot — that’s super high risk,” said Aliza Norwood, a medical expert at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

If the current trend continues — over 8,300 Texans were hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus infections Monday, up by nearly 900 from last week — “there may be a time in which it is appropriate to shut down bars and restaurants completely,” Norwood said.

Austin health officials agree.

“We are at a precarious spot right now where cases are rising across the country,  cases are rising across Texas,” said Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, before adding, “We really have to find a way to stabilize things to avoid that surge.”

But Abbott, who has concentrated power within himself to take action on COVID-19, said he has no plans to do so. He did not respond to requests for comment.

I’ve been an advocate for taking steps to help bars survive, with the rule interpretation that lets them be classified as restaurants a key component of that. I’ve done this because I want to see these businesses survive and their employees keep their jobs, and I believed it could be done in a reasonably safe fashion, with an emphasis on outdoor and to-go service. That obviously hasn’t worked out so well. The best answer would have been to pay the bars to shut down long enough to get the virus under control. It’s still not too late to do that, but that’s going to require Mitch McConnell’s Senate to take action, and I think we both know that’s not going to happen. One can only wonder what some advocacy from Republicans like Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz and John Cornyn might have accomplished, but that would have required them to take this seriously in the first place. In the meantime, just because these places are open doesn’t mean you have to go to them, or that you have to be inside of them if you still want to support them in some way. Keep yourself safe, at least.

Who’s concerned about the state’s coronavirus spike?

Not Greg Abbott, or Dan Patrick, or Ken Paxton, that’s for sure.

The Oregon governor is calling it a “freeze.” In New Mexico, it’s a “reset.”

Across the country, state elected officials are frantically rolling back their reopening plans to slow the burgeoning surge in coronavirus infections.

But in Texas, Republican leaders remain unwilling to change course in the face of soaring hospitalizations and an early uptick in deaths from the virus that has public health experts increasingly alarmed.

Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to impose new restrictions or allow county officials to take additional measures. Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened to strike down locally adopted restrictions. Other requests to further limit gatherings, close nonessential businesses or impose stricter mask requirements have been blocked.

On Friday, a state appeals court halted a temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses in El Paso County, where cases have skyrocketed and mobile morgues have been rushed in to handle all the casualties. Paxton and a group of restaurant owners had sued to block the order, claiming the governor has final say on any new restrictions.

“I will not let rogue political subdivisions try to kill small businesses and holiday gatherings through unlawful executive orders,” Paxton said in a statement celebrating the appeals court ruling. On Twitter, he added: “We must never shut Texas down again!!”

[…]

Since September, Abbott has relied on a reopening plan that ratchets up restrictions in regions that have growing numbers of people hospitalized with COVID-19; the threshold is now seven continuous days of coronavirus patients filling at least 15 percent of all available beds in that area.

Few if any other states are using a similar threshold, and public health experts have long cautioned against relying on hospitalizations alone because they provide a delayed glimpse into the state of an outbreak — it takes someone several days to be hospitalized after they contract COVID.

Rebecca Fischer, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M, said it’s important to consider multiple factors, including the rate at which people are testing positive for the virus, emergency room visits and infections at nursing and other long-term care facilities. And she said local governments need decision-making power to best respond to their situations, which may differ even within a given region.

“When I see county judges that are trying so hard to work toward the public health of their constituents and then are just cut off and told no, it kills me,” Fischer said. “Everybody in the public health realm is left scratching their head as to why that would be the case.”

Let’s be clear:

1. They don’t care. Abbott doesn’t want to talk about coronavirus. Paxton will sue any local official who tries to take action to save lives. Dan Patrick has never walked back his comments about letting Grandma die so businesses can reopen.

2. They will never give any authority to local officials. If anything, there will be further bills in the upcoming Lege to restrict what local officials can do even more.

3. They will go straight to Defcon 1 the minute the Biden administration attempts to take any action to combat the virus.

How many people get sick and die as a result is not their concern. They could not be more clear about this.

It’s still not too late to prevent a big spike in COVID infections

But it will be soon.

A rise in COVID-19 cases has health care officials and government leaders pleading with Houstonians: Act now to prevent, or at least minimize, a third wave of infections across Greater Houston.

“This feels a lot like late May, early June when we saw the early warning signs that things were beginning to increase,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, told the Chronicle on Tuesday, “and then things slipped out of our control.”

According to a Chronicle analysis, the seven-day rolling average for newly reported cases was 1,044.2 as of Monday in an eight-county Houston area. That’s the highest since Oct. 8. In the summer, the rolling average peaked July 17 at 2,432.7.

The rate at which the virus is spreading, called the reproduction rate, reached 1.18 across a nine-county Houston area as of Monday, according to the Texas Medical Center. A number below 1, which the Houston area did report for a few weeks, means the virus is burning out. A number above 1 means that virus spread is increasing. During the COVID-19 spike this summer, Houston’s reproduction rate was in the 1.5-1.7 range when things were getting out of control, Boom said.

Finally, the seven-day average for COVID test positivity rate was 4.2 percent for TMC hospital systems as of Monday. It had been 3.4 percent last month.

For the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday reported the positivity rate was 6.5 percent as of Oct. 21. Statewide, the positivity rate was 9.42 percent as of Monday.

[…]

Houston-area case increases are not as severe as in other parts of the country and state. In the U.S., 489,769 new cases have been reported since Oct. 20. There are surges in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. In El Paso, state health officials converted a convention center into a makeshift hospital to ease the crush of patients.

Still, Shreela Sharma, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health, knows how quickly COVID cases can climb. And she said the number of new cases in the Houston region is roughly 40 percent higher than when the summertime peak began. That means if a third wave does occur, it would start with a higher baseline.

The time is now to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash your hands.

“Our window is right now,” she said. “We could rapidly lose that window over the next few weeks.”

Yes, that is the one piece of good news. We know how to get a handle on this, and we’ve been doing it all along. Wear your mask – yes, wear it while voting, too – maintain social distancing, and avoid indoor gatherings. This week’s colder weather excepted, we’re in much better shape to handle the winter than the northern climes, because for most of our winter it’s still perfectly amenable outside for activities and dining and whatnot. Again, just don’t be an idiot. Do the things that you know you need to do. The alternatives are so, so much worse.

One more thing:

Researchers with Houston’s Health Department will monitor the wastewater flushed from 60 schools and 15 senior living homes in the city for COVID-19 in hopes of catching outbreaks before they arise in clinical testing.

City council on Wednesday unanimously approved $11.5 million in federal COVID-19 spending. Included in that was $221,000 to buy the sampling equipment needed to expand the city’s existing wastewater testing program into K-12 schools in areas with high positivity rates.

People shed the novel coronavirus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The samplers will be installed in manholes outside the schools, and researchers will analyze them, looking for the virus.

“It’s very granular,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the health department’s chief environmental science officer. “We don’t expect to see any positives at all, we expect to see nothing… If we see something in a school and we see it two days in a row, then we know someone in that school is shedding the virus.”

The department would then alert the school and deploy the more traditional, clinical testing, according to Hopkins.

Don’t laugh, this is an effective method of contact tracing. It’s already been used successfully by the city. Now, if there are people who can test wastewater to see if your poop has the COVID virus in it, you can damn sure keep wearing your mask.

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.