County authority leads to mixed feelings for alcohol establishments in Katy

By R. Hans Miller | News Editor
Posted 10/15/20

When Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order Oct. 7 allowing establishments to open back up at 50% capacity Oct. 14, he left it up to county judges to decide whether or not to include their …

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County authority leads to mixed feelings for alcohol establishments in Katy

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When Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order Oct. 7 allowing establishments to open back up at 50% capacity Oct. 14, he left it up to county judges to decide whether or not to include their county. As a result, alcohol-serving establishments in the Katy area have a mix of relief and frustration due to different approaches in area counties.

“I don’t disagree with many of you that it is time to open up Texas.  Too many small business owners, especially bar owners, have suffered financially because of these restrictions,” said Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, who signed documents allowing bars to reopen almost immediately after Abbott’s order was issued.

However, Duhon was not joined by his counterparts in Fort Bend and Harris counties right away.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George reached out to Fort Bend bar owners and managers to ask for their input through a community survey on the topic of bars reopening.

After considering the results of the survey, George announced Tuesday that he would be signing the appropriate documentation to allow bars in Fort Bend County to open back up – six days after Abbott’s order, but in time to not cause a delay for the Oct. 14 opening date established by Abbott.

“The top priority for Fort Bend County is a fast economic recovery without compromising the safety and wellbeing of our residents,” George said.

However, Harris County is still the holdout in opening bars back up.

“The data guiding county decision-making tells us we are doing much better than we were a few months ago, but we are still at the highest (Harris County Threat level System) level: red. Indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now, and this applies to bars, as well,” Harris County Hidalgo said.

Data posted to the Harris County Public Health website shows a decline in cases from about 3,600 new cases July 1 to 85 new cases Oct. 9. While that and other data shows improvement, the threat level system requires a 14-day period of flat or decreasing COVID-19 indicators that has not been reached yet.

Each county has a different benchmark set based on case counts and each judge’s leadership style.

This mix of has Nick Jessett, co-owner/operator of MKT Distillery in downtown Katy frustrated, he said. It leaves businesses like MKT – a mostly outdoor venue – locked down with dissimilar establishments like night clubs.

“It’s the best we can do, but it is very disappointing … that we get lumped in with a bad thing, right? I mean, not all bars were bad. A lot of bars did a lot of good stuff about maintaining social distancing,” Jessett said.

Under the governor’s latest order, if the county judge allows bars to practice social distancing protocols generally stricter than restaurants do.

Still, Jessett said he found even the slow progress was a relief, but slow in coming.

Still, Jessett said, the lack of progress in Harris County puts MKT in a tough position. The distillery, which brews a liquors in house, has recently been able to reopen under the same rules as restaurants, but only if a food truck is able to make it to provide food for patrons. Food trucks often have minimum sales that they ask hosts such as MKT to meet, which MKT can’t always afford after months of being shut down.

Meanwhile, just on the other side of downtown Katy, Battlehops Brewing would have been able to open Oct. 14 as a proper brewpub because it’s in Waller County. However, co-owner Jessica Merritt said the order does little good for them because the brewpub will have to remain licensed as a restaurant now until the next opportunity comes for them to renew their brewery permit.

Like MKT, Battlehops Brewing had adjusted to focus its sales elsewhere as a workaround to the 51% revenue cap from alcohol sales. The hobby shop and brewpub combo sells board games and has added several food items and other merchandise to the business’ offerings, Merritt said.

“The first option was that we had to submit an affidavit that 51% of our sales would be nonalcholol sales, basically,” Merritt said.

Hitting that target involved making changes to the shop to be able to meet the permitting standards for a restaurant, Merritt said. This incurred additional costs which was difficult since the shop had been closed much of the year and she and her husband and business partner JD Merritt wanted to ensure the business could make it regardless of other changes that might come along.

“We didn’t feel stable with just the affidavit,” she said. “Because, if you remember, there were some changes a few months ago where they let us reopen for a while and then we closed back up.”

Merritt said the delineation between a bar and a brewpub or distillery doesn’t make sense to her.

“It just sounds really strange, because there’s no explanation of how a bar and brewery or distillery or winery are different (from a night club), you know?,” Merritt said.

The COVID-19 policy roller coaster caused problems for both businesses, but both said they’ve been fortunate to receive support from the community.

Both Merritt and Jessett said the community can support them by visiting their businesses and making sure to purchase something other than alcohol to help them maintain the less than 51% cap on revenue so they keep their food establishment categorization.

“I’m happy to hear about Abbott’s order and it’s long past due relief for businesses that have not been able to open until now,” Merritt said.

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