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Hundreds of Texas bars and restaurants are scrambling to change the way they operate, maneuvering through loopholes that will allow them to reopen after being closed by Governor Greg Abbott’s latest bar targeting.
Abbott has closed bars twice since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Texas. The first time bars were swept in a total statewide business foreclosure. But the second time around, on June 26, Abbott singled out bars while allowing virtually every other type of business in Texas to remain open.
But other operations such as restaurants that sell a lot of alcohol, wineries and breweries were trapped in the same order and were also forced to close as alcohol sales exceeded 51% of total revenue. , which means that they have been classified as bars.
“In general, everyone has a common sense understanding: ‘What is a bar? And what is a restaurant? I think the 51% rule is so broad that it actually encompasses or actually encompasses businesses that we would normally consider to be real restaurants, ”said State Representative John Wray, R-Waxahachie, one of the more than 65 lawmakers who signed a letter. asking Abbott to update a restaurant’s definition of his order.
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Wray gave the example of a hamburger restaurant, where a customer can buy a burger and two beers. Often beer costs more than food, but that doesn’t make the restaurant a bar, he said.
Emily Williams Knight, president of the Texas Restaurant Association, estimates that around 1,500 restaurants ranging from steakhouses to coffee shops that sell wine were forced to close “inadvertently” when Abbott closed bars, resulting in around 35,000. jobs lost in the state.
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission responded to outcry from the service industry with new guidance in a July 30 advisory allowing companies to show they had less than 51% alcohol sales recently or use projections alcohol sales and apply for a food and beverage certificate, which allows them to reopen as a restaurant.
The certificate workaround requires the company to have a permanent kitchen. It allows bars and restaurants to use projected sales figures instead of requiring past sales to determine whether alcohol sales exceed food sales.
The TABC has received more than 600 requests from existing companies for food and beverage certificates since Abbott’s order and has granted around 300, according to commission spokesperson Chris Porter. Nearly 90 companies have also requested to update their alcohol sales figures in a bid to reopen.
Texas’ restaurant industry is already struggling, with Knight predicting that up to 30% of restaurants in the state could close.
For those forced to close their doors due to the bar order, this can be a death sentence and business owners see these changes as their last hope.
After his Dallas restaurant closed for the second time, Lava Cantina owner Ian Vaughn knew he would have to find a way to reopen – and quickly – for the sake of his 100-plus employees and to save his business.
After three weeks of pursuing various reopening options, Vaughn updated his sales figures to include live music ticket sales for concerts, reducing his alcohol sales percentage to around 39%. This allowed him to resume his activities.
“I was very distressed the whole time,” Vaughn said. “I had over 100 people out of work, and I just needed to get my staff back, and I had bills to cover and no idea what we were ultimately going to do. The ends meet. You feel complete. powerless.
Even some traditional bars can reopen using the same workarounds outlined by the TABC – as long as they have or will get permanent catering facilities.
Justin Kaufman, owner of El Paso Drafthouse and Rey Muerto, decided to reopen his bars as restaurants using projections of future sales to obtain a food and drink certificate.
Functionally, Kaufman’s businesses operate almost the same as before the second shutdown, using the security measures he implemented when he was allowed to reopen for the first time. It offers the same menus but now requires all customers to purchase food with their drinks to ensure it stays under the 51% alcohol sales limit. He also hired additional chefs to deal with the increased food sales.
While it is happy to be open, finding a way around the loopholes in the state took time and money.
Kaufman estimates the entire process, from hiring new chefs to dealing with increased food sales to permit applications, has cost him around $ 10,000.
“I wish things were a little different and I wish we had been taken into consideration,” he said. “I had no choice but to work around these situations and do what I have to do to stay open.”
However, the reopening option does not workfor everyone. Kim Finch, owner of the Dallas bars Double Wide and Single Wide, said adding a single kitchen to her facility would cost around $ 30,000. A grease trap alone would cost $ 15,000, she said.
Having already exhausted her savings to keep bills paid while her businesses are not generating any income, this expense is not an option for her.
“You’re just in the dark, you don’t know anything,” she said. “No one mentioned a ‘maybe a date.’ It’s too long ago for all of us to stay closed and keep paying our bills.”
Breweries also found themselves forced to shut down on Abbott’s orders, with two-thirds of Texas craft brewery owners predicting their businesses could shut down permanently by the end of the year under current shutdowns, according to one. Texas Craft Brewers Guild July Survey. .
Hopsquad Brewing Co., an Austin brewery, has reopened as a certified food and beverage restaurant with an on-site food truck serving as the kitchen, chief executive Greg Henny said.
He was lucky because the brewery already had a food truck on site, Henry said. But he thinks breweries and wineries should have their own separate classification of bars because they operate differently.
Henny said the TABC advice was confusing and harmful to breweries. To help other businesses survive the pandemic, the agency allowed “retail and manufacturing businesses” to serve and sell alcohol in a patio or outdoor space that was not part of its original designated premises, which some brewery owners considered eligible for reopening.
However, the TABC later released a clarification stating that companies with more than 51% alcohol sales were not eligible.
“Circumstances are constantly changing because of the way the winds blow with [the TABC]”He said.” It makes us frustrated. We fight tooth and nail just to stay open, and we have shown time and time again that we can operate safely, “he said.
State Representative Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth and Chairman of the Texas Legislative Tourism Caucus led the effort behind the letter sent to Abbott requesting an updated definition of the restaurant.
“You have a lot of these establishments – these restaurants – that are kind of in limbo just because of the amount of alcohol they sell,” he said. “Restaurants that have already been decimated by the first initial shutdowns with the pandemic [and] by the reluctance of some people to come and eat.
The letter requests that any business with a permit or license from the TABC still be considered a restaurant if it has a permanent kitchen that is operational during all hours of operation, serves multiple entrees, includes an extractor hood and system. fire extinguishing, serves only seated patrons, and follows social distancing protocols.
Abbott did not respond to requests for comment.
Krause said he also believes the bars could safely reopen as well.
“I wish they could open under certain restrictions and under certain guidelines,” Krause said. “They are ready, willing and able to comply.”
Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist at Texas A&M University School of Public Health, said the increase in COVID-19 cases cannot be attributed to any factor, including bar activity, but rather a combination of several . However, it is likely that bar activity had an impact on the overall transmission rate and some areas saw declines after their bars were closed and the mask warrant was put in place, she said. .
The typical sea bass environment facilitates transmission of the virus, she said. People are usually in much closer neighborhoods, ready to socialize with strangers, and cannot wear masks while drinking. Even talking loudly or singing along to music can propel droplets farther than usual, she said.
Clendenin said to reopen bars safely will require consumers to ensure they hold themselves accountable and that bar owners apply social distancing, masking and other safety practices.
“But at the end of the day, bar owners have to be able to provide for their employees and their families,” she said. “It is a very difficult time for everyone, but it comes down to individual responsible behavior and I cannot stress this enough.”
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