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Texas Bars Are Hosting “Soft Open” Events to Prove They Can Reopen With Proper Safety Measures in Place

Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance members want to send a message to the Texas governor

Wonder Bar
Wonder Bar
Wonder Bar/Facebook

Texas bars still aren’t allowed to reopen, and bar owners aren’t happy about it. Businesses that make more than half of their gross receipts from alcohol sales must remain closed at this time under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that reopens other businesses in the state this month.

In an effort to prove bars in the state can and should reopen now, the Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) is encouraging its members to host what it’s calling “soft open” events tonight, Friday, May 15, from 6 to 10 p.m. Participating bars and nightclubs will unlock their doors for their staffs only, remove their window boards, and demonstrate that they can implement preventative measures safely. The events aren’t open to the public and businesses won’t sell drinks, but DJs and/or live music is encouraged.

The hope is that these coordinated “soft opens” will compel the governor to include bars in phase two of the Texas reopening plan, set to take effect on Monday, May 18. TBNA has also created its own set of reopening guidelines (based on CDC recommendations and Texas’s existing guidelines for dine-in restaurant services and grocery stores) that it proposed to the state government and which the bars will adhere to for these “soft open” events.

These measures include adding tables and chairs at specific distances so that people can social distance rather than stand around, hiring extra staffers to oversee social distancing regulations, using plastic cups and paper plates, and requiring that staffers wear masks.

“Our businesses, which have been closed without any source of revenue, can no longer sustain complete closure,” stated TBNA’s press release. “This soft reopening is a first step in exerting our constitutional rights as tax-paying citizens in the great state of Texas.”

There isn’t consensus, however, that opening bars at this time is safe. There were 1,448 new novel coronavirus cases and 58 deaths related to the virus in Texas on Thursday, as reported by Statesman, which is “the highest single-day increase for both numbers.” Texas health experts predict that that there will be “a likely spike in hospitalizations in June,” according to Texas Monthly. Gov. Abbott hasn’t yet voiced a decision about bar reopenings one way or another.

But TBNA as well as certain bar owners feel strongly that a reopening is possible.

“Based on the current status of the situation and all the other industries that are out there that are opening, adapting, and creating safe environments, we think the bar industry can do that at this point as well,” said Darren Van Delden, co-owner of bar group The Union Venture, which oversees several Austin bars, and a TBNA board member. The Union Venture’s Rock Rose bars — Wonder Bar, Jack and Ginger’s, Rose Room, and 77 Degrees — are participating in the event.

Van Delden also said that businesses themselves can only control so much, as far as customer safety goes. “We want to be cognizant of trying to maintain a safer environment for both the staff and the customers,” said Van Delden when asked if a customer gets sick or a sick customer visits a bar. “But I can’t necessarily control what people do before or after [visiting] the environment that I can control.”

If a patron isn’t following social distancing and safety guidelines at a bar, “that’s a pretty simple answer,” said TBNA president Michael Klein, who is also the founder of Austin-based flavored liqueur company Hideous Liqueur. “This is no different than someone on a regular Friday night that isn’t being appropriate. They will be asked to leave.”

The practice-run opening event is meant to be “a show of solidarity” to TBNA members, according Klein. “Our members are now pitchfork angry. This has to happen. There is no more waiting. They have to open or they won’t be back there. They’re starving.”

Klein noted that many bars “will be forced to permanently close,” if they’re not able to reopen, which would impact the economy of the state, from the loss of jobs to the decimated vitality of local entertainment districts such as West Sixth and Rainey Street.

Klein also highlighted the difference in policy treatment between bars to restaurants, the latter of which can can serve mixed drinks through limited dine-in service and sell alcoholic beverages to-go.

“We have equal protection under the law,” continued Klein. The governor “willy nilly picked a group of bars to stay closed, when he allowed the other liquor licenses to do the same exact trade, the exact same practices to be open now is the folly of his way is unnecessary.”

Bars across the state will reportedly participate in Friday night’s event, but a full list isn’t available, nor is a full list of TBNA’s members. Board members include Bob Woody, the owner of several downtown Austin bars including Shakespeare’s Pub, The Ranch, Blind Pig Pub, and Buford’s Backyard; Brad Womack, co-owner of all locations of The Dogwood, Dizzy Rooster, and The Chuggin’ Monkey; Kevin Ream, the owner of downtown bars Burnside’s Tavern and Peckerheads; Adam Rogers, owner of downtown bars Buckshot, Two Bucks, and Buck Wild; and Greg Barrineau, the owner of Drink Texas in San Antonio and Boerne.

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