Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that bars can reopen at 50 percent capacity on October 14. You might think that bar owners across Texas let out a big sigh of relief. For many, that’s likely true. For others, the struggle to be heard continues. Dallas, Harris, and Bexar counties all declined to reopen their bars. But in North Texas, Denton, Collin, and Tarrant counties decided to let them pour drinks.
The Texas Neighborhood Bar Coalition (or TxNBC for short) began organizing around five months into the pandemic. Small funds from the Paycheck Protection Program couldn’t sustain a lot of low-staffed bars. Any agreements made with landlords or vendors, like ice providers, were going to expire. It was crunch time for bar owners like Lindsay Rae.
The effort began in Houston but has since spread statewide. Rae started the coalition alongside Michael Neff (Cottonmouth Club), Benjy Mason (Johnny’s Gold Brick), and Meg Mata, whose husband owns Lil’ Danny Speedo’s Go Fly a Kite Lounge. Bar owners soon joined in Dallas, folks like Deep Ellum’s Omar Yeefoon of Shoal’s Sound and Service and Kim Finch of Single Wide, Double Wide, and, her latest, Thunderbird Station.
Some 65 bars joined the TxNBC and began rallying their fans, followers, and regulars for an outreach campaign in August. Hundreds would call or email their representatives, asking local officials to “engage and collaborate with the TxNBC [because] no one knows their industry like they do.” This is what bar owners have felt they needed to do. As a fledgling group, the TxNBC represents the dives, the neighborhood haunts, and the drinking dens that have always rolled with the punches. But they’ve had to stop and consider the policies or decisions that have hurt them—ones they’ve had little say in historically—so they can advocates for themselves in the future. They want to have a voice by coming together; a voice they feel has been left out of the conversation.
Just last week Finch talked about her fears about opening a new bar amid a pandemic, especially as her other two remained closed. Single Wide and Double Wide were only open for a week back in June until Texas shut down bars for a second time. “I was really worried that this was going to happen [at Thunderbird], that we’re going to do all this, we’re going to over-staff and then nobody’s going to come out.”
It’s not that they were asking to reopen. Instead, TxNBC want to help be a part of the solution by advocating for strict industry standards that go beyond the state’s COVID health guidelines and hold bars accountable.
“We really wanted to have the conversation and the dialogue with our local and state governing agencies,” says Rae, who co-owns Two Headed Dog, a bar in Houston’s Midtown neighborhood. “A lot of us shut down before the shutdown was mandated the second time because we felt like it wasn’t safe…[but] everything we were hearing on the news or through all the mandates were very much like, ‘You, giant club owners or you, bars, that just don’t care…'”
Bar owners didn’t feel accurately represented.
These are your small neighborhood bars, which TxNBC defines as Mixed Beverage permit holders—meaning 51 percent of sales are from alcohol purchases—for spaces that can hold no more than 200 people. If that description sounds stiffer than two fingers of rye that’s because the TxNBC want to be clear about who they are—and aren’t.
“We really want to differentiate ourselves from nightclubs or the large chains,” says Rae. “Statistically, we’re the bars that are in a neighborhood for 10 to 15 years, if not longer; we’re not the quick turnaround restaurant-chain-clubs. We really are, at our heart, small owner-operators usually with staff of 15 or less.”
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While some bars have successfully changed their Mixed Beverage license to a Food and Beverage permit, as allowed by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission back in August, others lack the capital to do so. And as important as it was for TxNBC to advocate for themselves to local leadership, Gov. Greg Abbott has been operating through executive mandate. Only last week, when he said bars can reopen on October 14, did he give county judges the final say on the matter. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins still holds that bars should stay closed as COVID cases continue to rise. Collin, Denton, and Tarrant counties will reopen bars this week.
TxNBC will watch what happens after this week as bars in certain counties across Texas reopen. And Rae is still hoping to have a conversation with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
“She’s done a great job. She really has cared about the city. But with something like this, she does have the optics that all bars are clubs, and it’s a weird conundrum because the clubs will turn into restaurants,” says Rae.
Meanwhile, small bars are still scrambling. “It is scary because a lot of us only have like a month or two left.” They hope the TxNBC got off the ground in time to make a difference.