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County judge OKs bar openings, against Waco-McLennan County health authority's advice

County judge OKs bar openings, against Waco-McLennan County health authority's advice

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McLennan County Judge Scott Felton has signed an order allowing bars in McLennan County to open at 50% occupancy starting Wednesday.

The decision came Tuesday following a meeting of McLennan County commissioners, during which the health authority for the Waco-McLennan County Health District warned that opening bars could expose even more people to the COVID-19 virus.

Dr. Farley Verner, an infectious disease specialist, said McLennan County remains a pandemic "hot spot," with 25 new cases per 100,000 population over the past 7 to 14 days.

That's well above the state average of 14 new cases per 100,000, said Verner, and dwarfs the number of new cases over that period in Harris, Travis and Bell counties, whose averages are 4.5, 5.1 and 6.5 cases per 100,000, respectively.

"A bar is the worst situation imaginable, when considering transmission," Verner told commissioners. "It's closed, with poor ventilation. Socialization is commonplace. The wearing of masks is more difficult to enforce. Put all that together, and I think it can be said that reopening bars, even with precautions, is likely to be a factor that enhances community spread."

Felton explained his decision in a news release, saying, "I did not make this decision lightly. I received input from the commissioners court at today's meeting which unanimously favored opting-in. I also heard information from our local health authority that indicated that the normal way bars operate would lead him to an opposite conclusion.

"However, the Minimum Standard Health Protocols, if followed, should relieve those concerns to a significant extent," Felton said.

He continued, "It is my assumption that a good many of the bars have already converted to a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission designation of bar/restaurant and are already open. Therefore, this decision affects what I believe to be a fairly low number of entities. I am also assuming many of the patrons of those bars currently closed are going to bars/restaurants that allow them to consume alcohol.

"Again, the risk associated with bars opening will be greatly reduced by following the Minimum Standard Health Protocols such as limiting capacity to 50%, only serving persons seated at tables, 6-foot distance between tables, restrictions on number of persons at a table, employees and patrons wearing masks except when seated if keeping 6-foot of distance is not possible, reduced service hours, etc.," Felton said in his statement.

There was consensus among commissioners that bar owners should be given an opportunity to earn a living, with Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell remarking that government "should not be picking winners and losers."

Snell co-owns the building at 2315 Robinson Drive where the Melody Ranch dance hall operates.  Snell co-owns the building at 2315 Robinson Drive where the Melody Ranch dance hall operates. 

McLennan County is part of Trauma Service Area M, which includes Bosque, Falls, Hill and Limestone counties. It was put on probation, in a sense, when pandemic-related hospitalizations exceeded 15% seven consecutive days. With that number falling, Felton could act to include local bars in Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order allowing bars to open at 50% capacity.

Each county must "opt in," according to Abbott's order, and by doing so pledges to assist with enforcing the state-mandated protocol. 

Bars must quit serving alcohol at 11 p.m., though they may operate longer.

That requirement does not sit well with Commissioner Snell.

"A lot of these places don't get started until 8 or 9 o'clock, and then go until 2 a.m.," said Snell, who then took a shot at the state's decision to shutter bars in the first place, saying, "They still have to pay property taxes as if they're still open, though they've been closed all this time."

Bars have been closed since June 26, per Gov. Abbott's orders.

Snell said the state assured bar owners their status would be reconsidered when the number of COVID-19 infections began to fall.

"The bars are closed, and the numbers have still gone up," Snell said.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said the community is frustrated.

"We're eight months into this thing, and we're still guessing. We're having to pick and choose where we go as individuals," Perry said. "If bars are willing to comply, I can't in good conscience tell them they can't open."

Precinct 2 Commissioner Pat Miller noted the bar industry "has been hit hard," and would support a decision to allow them to reopen at 50% occupancy.

Mike Dixon, the county's legal counsel, said if bars are keeping their doors open by serving more food and securing TABC licenses that alter their classification, opening existing bars may have marginal impact.

But Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones wanted to take a stand.

"It is important to show our support for opening up business," he said.

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