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Bar owners bemoan Abbott’s new shutdown order

Shonda Novak
Brian, who wouldn't give his last name, boarded up the Voodoo Room on East Sixth Street on Friday after Gov. Greg Abbott closed bars in Texas due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s closing time for Texas bars once again, just five weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott allowed them to reopen at limited capacity during the coronavirus pandemic.

Abbott on Friday issued an executive order that shutters the state’s watering holes in an effort to reduce escalating numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Abbott’s order also tightens limits for restaurant occupancy, to 50% from 75%. The order came one day after Abbott paused his efforts to reopen Texas amid rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Texas surpassed 5,000 current coronavirus hospitalizations for the first time, with 5,102 reported Friday — a record for a 15th day in a row. Just a week ago, it had not crossed the 3,000 mark in hospitalizations.

The state reported 5,707 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the fourth consecutive day of 5,000-plus new cases.

The Texas Department of State Health Services also reported 28 new coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the statewide toll to 2,324.

In Travis County, which did not update its public dashboard Friday, officials reported 7,097 total cases and 293 hospitalizations Thursday.

Austin-area bar owners expressed frustration and disappointment over the latest shutdown, which comes a little more than a month after Abbott allowed them to reopen May 22.

“We’re being scapegoated due to the action of those who showed lack of social distancing and a lack of concern for the reality of what’s going on,” said Nathan Hill, who owns the White Horse, Frazier’s Long and Low, Stay Gold and High Noon. “Because some bar owners chose to be irresponsible, we are all paying the price.”

Some said they had hoped that state enforcement of violations of health and safety rules — including suspending alcohol permits — would allow bars to avoid another state-ordered closure.

“What they’ve done now is shut down every bar in the state, and some of them were working really hard on compliance,” said Michael Girard, owner of Speakeasy, a bar and music venue in downtown Austin.

Girard said Abbott’s decision to allow an increasing number of businesses to reopen before Memorial Day — “after people had been cooped up for several months” due to the coronavirus pandemic — “was not the best idea.”

But the bars, he said, were “drowning (financially), and when you’re drowning and somebody throws you a lifeline and allows you to open back up, you grab for whatever is thrown to you, so it frankly was just an issue of survival for a lot of these bars.”

To Girard, the solution was enforcement, “not shutting everything down.”

He said he had all of his 17 employees tested for coronavirus Thursday as a precautionary measure, paying for the tests himself. He said they all came back negative.

“So why am I getting shut down?” Girard said.

Hill said small bars that followed the proper protocols are being punished because large bars chose to disregard them.

Many have spent money they don’t have on extra outdoor seating, plexiglass dividers and sanitary stations — only to be closed again, he said.

“It’s going to be the death knell for multiple bars,” he said. “A bunch of us knew that a second shutdown would be something we couldn’t make it out of.”

Loans have helped small bars make rent, but when there is no end in sight, small operators can’t continue to take on more debt, Hill said.

“Our rents are based on a market that a year ago was a boom town,” he said. “We can’t keep doing that when the light at the end of the tunnel just keeps getting farther and farther away.”

Kevin Shipp, the operating partner of Cedar Street Courtyard on West Fourth Street downtown, which employs about 20 staffers, said the new shutdown order is “beyond frustrating.”

"We spent a lot of money for our staff to come in and deep clean the venue, on top of our regular cleaning crew," Shipp said. “It’s not fair to us for the people who did things right and tried to open up safe. It’s really unfortunate there are a few of us that follow the rules and try to do things the right way, and we're still punished for it.”

E.C. Cooper, co-owner of Full Circle Bar in Austin, said his first reaction to hearing the news was anger at the governor.

“Gov. Abbott opened things too soon and basically, possibly blew everyone’s chances of having a really good July and August,” he said. “I felt like this was going to happen.”

He said he felt reopening of bars could have happened later and slower. In fact, for his own business, he was making sure to open at his own pace.

“We’ve always tried to stay two to three weeks behind what the governor’s allowing, because we’ve always felt it was too fast,” Cooper said.

Now, he said he will have to scramble again to defer debt payments and rent. Bars are allowed to do take-out, but Cooper said that alone isn’t lucrative enough to remain open.

When Christina Torres, co-owner of School House Pub, heard the news, she said, “Not again.”

Still, she said it wasn’t necessarily a surprise because some bars weren’t following guidelines.

“We were never at capacity,” Torres said. “We were following the rules. It kind of feels like when you’re in elementary school and one of the kids is bad and takes recess away from everyone. It kind of feels like that.”

Her pub is planning for to-go sales only, and she said she expects its sales to take another hit. What hurts the most, she said, is how her 15 employees will be affected.

“All the people we hired back, we have to let go again, which is really hard,” Torres said. “Having to do this all over is heart-wrenching.”

Mark Phillippe, owner of Hi Sign Brewery, said people who haven’t taken the coronavirus seriously are to blame for the new executive order shutting bars down again.

“People have continued to disregard scientific evidence that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said. “We just live in a society where everybody feels like everything is a constitutional right.”

Phillippe said he’s frustrated because he felt that he and his business did everything right under the circumstances.

“My business is now going to be put in a scenario where we’re fighting to stay alive again because of something that we didn’t do or contribute to,” he said.

Adam Orman, owner of Loca d’Oro, said he worries that the rollback sends a message to customers that restaurants aren't safe.

"Winning back customers was the place where we really were all in this together,“ Orman said. ”Any guest who was going to go to another restaurant and see something sloppy happen was going to be lost to all restaurants for a couple of months.“

American-Statesman staff writers Titus Wu, Kara Carlson, Nicole Cobler and Lori Hawkins contributed to this report.

Kevin Shipp, operating partner of Cedar Street Courtyard, closes his bar on West Fourth Street on Friday. "It's not fair to us for the people who did things right and tried to open up safe," he said.