Local bars, alcohol establishments struggle to outlive pandemic, statewide shutdown

By Sandra Sadek | Times Editorial Intern
Posted 7/27/20

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Wildcatter Saloon co-owner Justin Whitfield made sure to follow all safety guidelines to ensure his business remained open and safe for customers. The Wildcatter …

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Local bars, alcohol establishments struggle to outlive pandemic, statewide shutdown

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When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Wildcatter Saloon co-owner Justin Whitfield made sure to follow all safety guidelines to ensure his business remained open and safe for customers. The Wildcatter Saloon is located on three and a half acres of land, which Whitfield said ensured plenty of space to practice social distancing and therefore limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite the precautions bar owner took, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order forcing all bars to close has left Whitfield, like many other alcohol-serving establishments, without a steady income and an uncertain future for his business.

“It's just a waiting game. I mean I can last a couple of months, but I'm already at that point where I'm starting to stress out a little as each day goes by,” Whitfield said.

Shutting down

Since the initial shutdown in March that forced non-essential businesses to close for two months, Whitfield has only been open for three and a half weeks. He was able to support himself and his family for a few months but now Whitfield worries funds may run out and will leave him with few options to survive.

“It's hard because when you have a business, especially a bar or live music venue, they can shut us down, but the problem is the landlord still wants you to pay,” Whitfield said. “If it goes past a few more months, I’m gonna have to sell my house.”

Abbott issued an executive order June 26 limiting certain businesses and services as COVID-19 cases numbers exponentially rose. Establishments that receive more than 51% of their revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages were ordered to close that day. Restaurants were allowed to remain open for dine-in service at 50% capacity.

Many bar owners are not happy with the order, categorizing it as unfair. More than 20 Texas bars are suing the governor for this recent shutdown order. For some owners though, it’s just a question of survival.

“You're being told that your business is the reason why we're having so many cases. It's a slap in the face because my business is a dream come true,” Whitfield said. “I don't want to sue somebody, I just want to open my business, and I want to take care of my family.”

Arbitrary lines

While the order singles out certain business types, the line between bar and restaurant seems arbitrary to business owners.

Anthony Patchimela is the owner of Scholars and Scoundrels, a bar and grill that has remained open due to its alcohol sales not meeting the 51% requirement for closure. Patchimela said bars were not given a chance to adapt their business model to remain open and continue making income.

“At least give them an option to make money. I mean, we still do have a constitutional right to earn a living as owners and I just don't think that's fair,” Patchimela said.

A lack of guidance on how to properly distinguish between bars that serve food and restaurants that serve alcohol has left owners like Whitfield frustrated with elected leaders.

“I really wish the leaders would get a hold of a plan and stick to it,” Whitfield said. “It all comes down to leadership. I blame Gov. Abbott.”

Wineries and distilleries

The vague clumping of all alcohol-serving establishments into one category in Abbott’s order has left wineries and distilleries feeling unprotected and disadvantaged. Nick Jessett, CEO and President of MKT Distillery in Katy, said MKT has had to switch to a drive-thru only model that has left the business’ future bleak.

“If you look at breweries wineries and distilleries, most of the time we're kind of an outdoor establishment we don't have like this, you know 120 people show up we have a very kind of calm crowd and we are usually kind of a large outdoor venue as well. So, it's been really unfortunate that we've kind of got lumped in with the bars,” Jessett said.

State law prohibits distilleries from selling on Sundays, a rule not applicable to wineries and breweries. Distilleries are also not allowed to ship alcohol and are limited to selling two bottles per person per 30 days.

“There's a lot of things that the governor could do for us to kind of help our business and help us kind of take care of our people and take care of our employees,” Jessett said. “If we keep on limiting what our business can do, our distilleries in Texas are going to start closing.”

Taking action

The shutdown of bars and alcohol-serving establishments has led many to respond to the governor’s executive order. Lawsuits have been filed against the governor’s office and others – like Jessett – have sent letters and emails to state representatives and the governor to reconsider the entities affected by the order.

The Texas Whiskey Association has sent over 17,000 emails to the governor’s office as part of their Still Strong Texas campaign. The group is looking to increase bottle sales limits, allow in-county delivery and direct-to-consumer, age verified shipping.

Texas House District 132 Representative Gina Calanni (D-Katy) and Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller have also asked Abbott for economic relief to distilleries.

“As our nation went into a virtual lockdown, Texas distilleries saw the wide-spread shortage of hand sanitizers and, after receiving regulatory guidance, immediately responded. They went to work as essential employees, cranked up their stills, bottling lines, and labeling operations and started making alcohol for hand sanitizer,” the TWA website reads.

Jessett said Abbott hasn’t responded to letters and emails but the Texas House and Senate have been supportive.

Whitfield’s concerns remain less political and more pragmatic.

“Usually as a small business owner, you have a mindset of progress, of building, gaining. We don't have that now. Our whole mindset as a small business owner of a live music venue is survival - can I outlast this lockdown and pay my bills?” Whitfield said.

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