Gerard Schank cracked open his Hemingway’s Watering Hole on Wednesday, his bar joining others countywide with permission to resume serving.
“They closed us on March 18. We opened about 10 days in June, then we were closed again until today,” Schank said, going over the COVID-19 chronology that has strapped his small bar to a roller-coaster the past few months. “Fortunately, I had enough money in the bank to live off of.
“I thought this would last a short time, so I continued to pay my staff base pay. But it went on and on, and I finally had to say, ‘Look, guys, I’m sorry, but I can’t continue paying you.’”
But Gov. Greg Abbott last week gave bars a reprieve, ruling they could reopen at 50% capacity starting Wednesday as long as county executives opt in. McLennan County Judge Scott Felton issued an executive order Tuesday making Abbott’s action official locally.
Felton said Wednesday he believes bars should have the opportunity to operate under safety protocols established by Abbott and to compete against other businesses allowed to open to some extent.
“It’s individual responsibility, so if you don’t feel comfortable going into a bar or restaurant or other type of business, do not go,” he said during Wednesday’s weekly COVID-19 press conference. “It’s your responsibility. You know what you have to do to protect yourself and protect others, and if we do that, we would not have to have the government line out protocols for us.”
The state trauma service area that includes McLennan County had a hospitalization rate of 9.86% as of Wednesday, meaning patients with COVID-19 were using fewer than 10% of all hospital beds in a five-county region. If that percentage should rise to more than 15% for too long, bars risk being forced to close again, Felton said.
Schank said Hemingway’s holds only 25 patrons under normal circumstances, meaning he now can allow about a dozen guests to sit and drink. He moved all bar stools to a storage area, removing the temptation to congregate.
“One gentleman, my first customer, said he’s coming by tonight,” Schank said Wednesday. “We’re celebrating our 21st anniversary on Dec. 1. My wife, Kathy, and I took this place over in December 1999. It originally was a wine bar at the rear of the Lake Air Mall food court. The owner suffered a massive heart attack, went off the highway and was killed. His wife ran it for a time.”
The new state rules that allow bars to reopen also require them to quit serving alcohol at 11 p.m.
“Most bar customers haven’t decided what they’re going to wear until 10 o’clock,” Schank said. “Closing at 11 won’t be hard for me, though it may be for some of my customers. I don’t really understand why bars must quit serving at 11 but restaurants are under no such obligation.
“I haven’t heard any justification for that, but a rule is a rule.”
Bars across Texas have skirted rules targeting them by securing from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission a food and beverage certificate. They have become restaurants by law, with alcohol sales representing less than 51% of total revenue, TABC spokesperson Chris Porter said.
Schank said he avoided the temptation to pursue such a certificate, saying, “I would have to sell some very expensive popcorn and hotdogs.”
Porter said 2,208 bars statewide have been reclassified since the end of June, as they pursued and received the certificates. He said he did not have specific figures for McLennan County because of tracking methods.
“You give the TABC a projection of future sales, and if you expect alcohol sales to be less than 51%, you can operate as a restaurant,” Porter said. “Otherwise, you can provide the TABC with a sworn affidavit that alcohol sales have been below 51% of total sales the past four or five months. You have to show a definite trend.”
The TABC and the Comptroller’s Office monitor compliance, he said.
Porter said the TABC does not view the license tweaking as undermining efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 in bar settings.
“It is recognition that a large number of bars would have gone out of business within 30 to 45 days,” he said. “It wanted to find ways for bars to operate, but operate safely under the rules Gov. Abbott put in place. This was coordinated through the governor’s office, and has been a good program so far.”
Bars cannot become restaurants, and meet that 51% threshold for food service, simply by changing their TABC-authorized designation. They must make menu items available, and persuade customers to place orders.
“There really is no way to require it. You have to say, ‘If you’re going to be here and drink, please order food,’” said Chris Cox, an ownership partner in The Backyard Bar, Stage and Grill on South Eighth Street.
The Backyard reopened with a food and beverage certificate in late July. The large venue has a seating capacity of 1,400, and management is limiting occupancy to about 350 because of social distancing requirements.
Cox said The Backyard Brew & Chew on South 11th Street and The Backyard Saloon on Austin Avenue received food and beverage certificates last week.
“Everybody’s just having to be really clever,” Cox said. “But we’re not making any money at this point. We’re just paying bills.”
Angela Carroll, a waitress at Papa Joe’s, a watering hole in Lorena, said it would reopen Wednesday after several bouts with closings.
Carroll said she expected regulars to drop by throughout the evening.
“We have vending machines and cooks available, but we’re actually looking for a cook,” she said. “We close at midnight, and most everybody is out of here by 9 or 10, unless we have a band or something.