Bar owners worry when coronavirus increases in their workplaces

HOUSTON >> The roar of conversation and music that normally fills The Cottonmouth Club in downtown Houston fell silent last Friday when owners closed it a second time during the coronavirus pandemic, a week before the governor of Texas order all bars to do the same amid increased infections.

Co-owner Michael Neff, questioning what he saw as a race to reopen by the state and wondering if his industry was making matters worse as some bars failed to meet occupancy limit regulations, he said he felt he could no longer provide a safe environment for your staff. or patrons at the neighborhood bar with a rock ‘n’ roll vibe.

He and his staff began to hear that workers in other bars were getting sick.

“Texas was a terrible experiment, terrible because it experimented with people’s lives and this is where we are,” said Neff.

That ended Friday, with Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement that the bars would be closed again, a day after the state reported a record nearly 6,000 confirmed cases and the day Texas topped 5,000 hospitalizations for the first time.

Neff said that while he criticized bars that ignored the rules, he also blames local and state officials for what he says was a lack of guidance and support, a lack of a statewide mask order, and, until recently, a lack of compliance.

It’s a sentiment shared by other bar and restaurant owners across the state and beyond, who have been deeply financially affected by antivirus measures and are also struggling with tough decisions, with some closing again after workers became infected or closed. as a precautionary measure due to the increase in cases in their areas.

In a nearly eight-minute video he posted online earlier this month, Neff expressed his frustration, starting with a message to Abbott: “You’re taking us to die.”

An email seeking comment from an Abbott spokesman was not immediately answered Friday. During a press conference Monday, Abbott said the goal has always been to reduce cases and keep people out of hospitals.

“Texans have already shown that we don’t have to choose between jobs and health,” he added. “We can protect Texans’ lives while also restoring their livelihoods.”

Ever since the bars and clubs in Texas could reopen on May 22 with the service indoors, social media has been full of photos and videos showing busy businesses that obviously didn’t follow the rules of capacity and social distancing. But the first state operation to suspend alcohol permits from establishments that ignored the rules did not occur until a week ago.

In closing the bars again on Friday, Abbott said the increase in confirmed cases was “largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans who congregate in bars.” Abbott also ordered restaurants to cut capacity in half starting Monday.

He added that “each Texan has the responsibility for themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask,” but has not mandated its use throughout the state. Last week, she said cities and counties could order companies to require their customers to wear masks.

A similar crackdown is occurring in several states where confirmed infections are on the rise. In some places, the owners do it voluntarily, as Neff did. Florida banned alcohol consumption in bars on Friday after confirmed coronavirus cases approached 9,000.

“What we realize is that despite exceeding the required protocols and with very little federal or state guidance, more needs to be done,” said Daniel Wright, the owner of five Cincinnati restaurants and bars that closed as a precaution. Facebook post this week.

Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company, which has a popular beer garden that remained largely closed even before Friday’s order, has also struggled to navigate what it considers to be inconsistent messages on how to operate, the company spokesperson said. Lennie Ambrose.

“We are going to follow the laws or the ordinances. But even if something is allowed, that may not be the right thing for Saint Arnold from a public health point of view, ”said Ambrose.

That feeling of uncertainty is repeated elsewhere. Sean Kennedy, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, said his organization has told officials that the hospitality industry “is only looking for consistency, transparency and future rules.” The association has lobbied local governments to increase efforts to educate customers about their responsibilities when leaving, Kennedy said.

An ongoing survey by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston of restaurants and bars in the Austin area found that many are frustrated that the governor has let cities and counties decide whether to order masks, Mark said. Jones. , one of the researchers involved in the study.

Neff said he is concerned about losing his bar and has worked to find other sources of income, including selling cocktails to go, starting a podcast and hosting a live broadcast of a virtual nightclub bar. But he said he also feels a responsibility to let people know what went wrong and help ensure that this does not happen again.

“We are not going to succeed in reopening our economies if we do it the way we have been doing it,” he said. “And nobody wants that kind of sacrifice both in business and in life.”