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Is It Time to Reopen Bars in Austin?

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Texas, bar owners across the city are divided on whether the time is right to reopen

The bar at the Roosevelt Room
The bar at the Roosevelt Room
Roosevelt Room/Facebook
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

Texas bars are officially allowed to reopen on May 22, as Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the state proceeds. In Austin, bar owners are divided on the measure, with some planning to reopen as soon as possible, while others are waiting to see if reopening so soon is the best course of action.

“I was kind of shocked,” said Justin Lavenue, co-owner of essential downtown cocktail bar the Roosevelt Room. “We simply do not yet feel that it is safe to have our staff and guests,” he said.

Co-owner Denis Gobis added that the pair would “like to see the transmission rate in Texas start to decrease” before they reopen the bar — perhaps in July.

The reopening date was announced this week, as the number of positive cases and deaths related to the virus in the state have continued to increase, as tracked by the Texas Tribune. Bars will be able to reopen at 25 percent capacity indoors, and at full capacity outdoors, albeit with social distancing measures in place. Masks aren’t required for both customers and staffers, but are recommended, while guests are required to be seated at tables.

The Austin location of skee-ball bar Full Circle isn’t immediately reopening either. It’s “premature” to reopen, according to co-owner Eric Wikman. “We don’t see a clear message that this is an appropriate time for bars to be open,” he said.

“Texas is a large state with different needs for different communities,” Wikman said, noting that the situation in rural counties is different than in denser cities. He’s still taking his cues from city authorities, including Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who extended the city’s “stay home” order through the end of the month. “Local municipalities should have more say in what is right for their area,” he said.

Full Circle also operates another location in New York City, which has been a hot spot during the pandemic. “It is easy to be in Austin and not know anyone that has got the virus and think that this is nothing to take seriously,” Wikman said. “But because we have the Brooklyn bar, which was in the epicenter of where things were the worst, we don’t want to see that happen here as well.”

Nathan Hill, the co-owner of several Austin bars, including The White Horse, Stay Gold, and Frazier’s, isn’t planning on reopening any of his businesses this week. In fact, he isn’t sure when he’ll reopen.

“With everything constantly in flux, I can’t attempt to predict what things look like in two weeks, let alone a month,” Hill said. “I’m just keeping an eye on polls, social media, news, and new case and death statistics for now.”

The Roosevelt Room’s Gobis echoed Hill’s sentiment, thinking that the current bar guidelines will change over the next two months. “We would like the landscape of how bars and restaurants will be required to operate for the foreseeable future become more set in stone before we make the large expense in time and finances to reopen our doors,” he said.

Just before the governor’s order, members of the Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance held “soft open” events on May 15. Participating bars took down their boards and enacted guidelines — installing table and chairs for social distancing purposes, requiring staffers to wear masks — to show the governor that they could reopen safely, just like restaurants.

Naturally, those bars, including Union Venture’s Rock Rose bars Wonder Bar, Jack and Ginger’s, and 77 Degrees, as well as Bob Woody’s establishments, such as Sixth Street spots Shakespeare’s Pub and Blind Pig Pub plan to reopen tomorrow.

Safety measures and requirements recommended by the state include having specific staffers make sure that people and groups are maintaining six feet distances, discouraging dancing and close-contact activities, using disposable or digital menus, implementing table-service (as opposed to ordering at the bar), and installing a hand sanitizing station at entryways for guests.

South Austin pool bar Warehouse Billiard Bar is taking the holiday weekend before it opens for guests on Tuesday, May 26, to train and test out safety measures for employees and guests. For Warehouse, this means nixing free pool games, sterilizing pool tables and equipment after each use, and installing plexiglass shields over the bar and for the door staff.

The bar plans on taking the temperatures of both employees and customers before entering the premises. While it waits to install a doorway temperature scanner on June 1, the bar will take manual temperatures until then.

“A Tuesday opening will be much easier for us to manage than a Friday opening,” said owner Ronnie Roark.

Warehouse Billiard Bar

509 East Ben White Boulevard, , TX 78704 (512) 443-8799 Visit Website

The Roosevelt Room

307 West 5th Street, , TX 78701 (512) 494-4094 Visit Website

The White Horse

500 Comal Street, , TX 78702 (512) 553-6756 Visit Website

Full Circle Bar

1810 East 12th Street, , TX 78702 (512) 814-0211 Visit Website