Going Backwards

Emotions Swirl As Bars Close and Restaurants Re-Tool Again

Beverage professionals and restaurant operators respond to the latest news.

By Timothy Malcolm June 26, 2020

As news spread Friday that, because of the recent sharp increase in COVID-19 cases across Texas, bars (along with breweries, and wine tasting rooms) statewide would have to close for customers within hours, while restaurants would have to reduce their capacities to 50 percent by Monday, owners, operators, and workers in the Houston food and beverage industry expressed a range of responses.

The opinions include anger and frustration at state leadership, which—in comparison to other states—aggressively reopened the Texas economy in phases over the past two months, to disapproval at the actions of some aspects of the hospitality industry, to overwhelming disappointment. Although everyone in the restaurant and bar industries wants to keep people safe and healthy, they're also working to navigate the reality that their workers' livelihoods hang in the balance.

Ricardo Molina, co-owner of  Molina's Cantina's two locations, says this latest order may not affect his business much, as he's already finding it hard to fill his restaurant at 75 percent capacity.

"If the people are not ready to come in, they won't come in," Molina says. "If they see that you're not following protocol, they'll walk out."

Molina says his restaurants are following protocols established by the Texas Restaurant Association's Texas Restaurant Promise—guidelines from the Texas Restaurant Association that restaurants are following to guarantee that they are completing at least the minimum of the governor's orders.

"We follow the promise to a T. We have been doing that," he says. "What we've been concerned with is the bars are the bad actors and there's a lot of them. They're not at 25 or 50 (percent) ... they're at 150."

However, Molina says that he feels horrible for bars, but notes that, in talking to vendors who service a variety of establishments, he's learned many watering holes aren't following the state guidelines. He specifically referred to establishments along the Washington Avenue corridor where, on Sunday, adult playground bar Handlebar's permits were temporarily suspended by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission for not following protocols. "They're packing a lot of people in," he says. "And it's younger folks who seem to think that they won't be badly affected. You know, they're not staying six feet apart. You don't go to a bar to be separated."

Bars speak out

Alba Huerta, the owner of Julep and one of Houston's most respected bar professionals, doesn't mince words when discussing how leaders statewide and nationwide have treated establishments like hers.

"I feel like the way that bars have been treated during this entire time has been incredibly disrespectful," she says. "We have been the redheaded stepchild of Gov. Abbott during the coronavirus shutdown."

Bars and other drinking establishments were first closed March 16 through Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's order. Days later, Abbott waived regulations that disallowed the delivery of alcohol, meaning that bars could sell to-go alcohol with food orders. While restaurants were able to re-open to customers at 25 percent capacity on May 1, bars weren't able to re-open until May 22. They were further allowed to open to 50 percent capacity on June 3.

Huerta points out that as bars have been unable to operate fully, mandatory face mask orders, which must be enforced by local businesses, weren't put in place until earlier this week in Harris County. Huerta says she feels like bars are getting the blame for the recent increase in COVID-19 cases, despite the fact that they've only recently been allowed to resume functioning in a way that even slightly resembled their pre-pandemic business. She contends folks ascribing the new flood of cases to bars should be looking to state officials instead. 

"What is the issue and who are we blaming? People are getting sick," says Huerta. "Well, it's leadership from the government. I'm not saying people should've had pool parties, but what kind of enforcement is in place?"

The sentiment is shared across the industry.

"I was really frustrated," says Kristine Nguyen, manager at Cantina Barba, a restaurant with a bar that can remain open, and El Segundo, a Downtown bar owned by the same outfit that has to close per the order. "It's like, everything was opening up too early, and it's a really shitty situation because as a manager who has employees living off tips, we were forced into having to open up because everyone else was opening up."

This is the core issue owners, operators, and managers are grappling with across the hospitality industry. First and foremost, they don't want people—including their customers and their employees—to get sick, but they feel that if they can proceed as safely as possible, they should open their establishments because, otherwise, they lose money, can't pay employees, and could go under completely.

Now that the bars are closed again entirely, aside from takeout beverages, they're back to square one. What beverage professionals like Huerta and Nguyen want is a clear plan going forward that doesn't have grey areas. 

"I really wish that there was some sort of better response to all this," says Nguyen. "We were planning on this happening. It was inevitable. We knew it was gonna happen. It's just shitty that it actually did happen."

Striking a balance

Still, Alex Brennan-Martin, owner of Brennan's of Houston, thinks Abbott "is being prudent" in his decision making, having to consider the needs of a range of economic situations across the state while also taking into account how the medical community is responding.

"He's got an entire state filled with counties that have a case or two, and then Harris County and Bexar County and other hotspots," says Brennan-Martin. "He's got to balance it."   

Brennan's has been following state regulations, keeping its dining room at 75 percent capacity until June 18, when it closed its dining room for a week because a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. After re-testing employees, the restaurant re-started dine-in service Thursday.

Brennan-Martin says his restaurant is also following the Texas Restaurant Promise but adds that "I don't think we can hide from the virus." He'll reduce Brennan's to 50 percent capacity by Monday, saying the restaurant is large enough to maintain that guideline safely.

But some restaurateurs aren't even going there yet. Anita Jaisinghani, James Beard nominated chef and owner of Pondicheri, has yet to re-open her dining room, though she did put a few tables outside of her River Oaks restaurant for those wanting to nosh.

"I didn't even think we were there when they did the 25 percent. I felt it was too soon," says Jaisinghani. "I think this is not the time to hustle and make money. This is the time to be prudent and be careful."

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