June 30, 2020

Bars Take Hardest Hit in Texas Virus Reclosing
as Unorganized Force without Lobby Protection

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Texas bar owners have been easy targets in the state's desperation scramble to corral a coronavirus that's out of control as one of the biggest industries that has no real representation at the Capitol in Austin beyond the fledgling craft brewery ranks.

The traditional saloon and tavern proprietors who don't make the beer, wine and whiskey they sell have no statewide association to lobby for their interests during legislative sessions and the interims when unexpected issues and events like pandemics arise.

While the Texas Craft Brewers Guild has made significant strides at the statehouse in recent years as an upstart force within the drinking establishment business, the barkeeps who Governor Greg Abbott shut down late last week for the second time this year have never found the need to be organized until now.

The bars in Texas are one of the last living testaments to a bygone era when mom and pop outfits still prospered before the advent of Walmart and other chain operations that have driven many of the independents out of business in the past few decades.

The conventional barkeeps are learning the hard way now about the need to be armed with lobbyists in the Capital City like other industries that have successfully headed off restrictions that the Republican governor had imposed in the early stages of the initial COVID-19 outbreak this spring.

Bar owners who serve drinks to customers who talk about politics frequently are giving themselves a crash course now in the art of political influence with events like a protest at the statehouse on Tuesday that was difficult to organize without a centralized presence here.

A group called the Texas Bars & Nightclub Alliance has come out of a long hibernation in the wake of the Abbott closure directive with a lawsuit that it hastily assembled in an attempt to overturn the latest order that's shuttered the watering holes here.

The TBNA had been organized originally by bars on Sixth Street in Austin more than 10 years ago when other downtown businesses and residents were complaining about problems that stemmed from weekend partying. The group takes credit for the death of legislation in 2009 that would have strengthened the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's regulatory authority.

But the TBNA was widely unknown in statehouse circles before coming out of the blue last week in defense of the bars that Abbott caught by complete surprise with their selective shuttering in a state where young adults have been spurning social distancing at beaches, parks and other places as well.

The craft breweries that have been popping up in and around Texas cities in recent years have a major head start compared to the old-fashion bars with a collective appeal to Abbott on Monday for relief from the latest closure order that affects the brewpups as well.

But the craft beer and liquor businesses owe a significant part of their limited success with the Legislature to having Houston beer distributor John Nau partly in their corner during the 2019 session when the Beer Alliance of Texas supported a compromise plan that Abbott eventually signed into law.

Traditional bars didn't seem to care when Abbott appointed no one to represent them on the Strike Force to Open Texas - a group of mostly wealthy business executives who do have lobby teams here. The bars are paying a high price now for failing to be prepared to play defense after being singled out by the governor in an executive order that might have been prompted as much for punishment as for the public health and safety protection in a state that's erupted into the new U.S. epicenter amid a massive virus resurgence.

Barkeeps have a right to be upset about the failure to receive the kind of special treatment that Abbott gave hair salons who were allowed to operate illegally without having state licenses temporarily stripped like 20 or more bars have in the past few weeks for ignoring social distancing requirements.

The barbers and hair stylists hadn't have any paid muscle in Austin either until hard-line conservatives rallied behind them in a symbolic rally cry for an end to all coronavirus restrictions regardless of the added suffering and death that such a position would guarantee. But the hair crafting industry got a free pass from Abbott with the revision of an order to retroactively rubber-stamp Dallas beautician Shelley Luther's decision to reopen the Salon A la Mode while taunting the governor and local officials in act of defiance that landed her in jail for a couple of days.

The bars contend that the governor is attempting to punish an entire segment of the Texas economy for the irresponsible actions of a few. But Abbott doesn't see it that way in light of TABC conducted undercover operations that found widespread violations of protocols that were conditions for reopening.

Abbott also ordered Texas restaurants to scale back operations from 75 percent to 50 percent in a move that's a minor inconvenience compared to a full-scale closure. But the businesses that make more than half of their money selling prepared meals have had major muscle in Austin since the Texas Restaurant Association's inception in 1937.

The restaurants have a seat at the decision-making table with Tilman Fertitta as an Abbott strike force member who owns the Landry's seafood chain along with a variety of other businesses including the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association.

Fertitta has been one of the biggest donors to Abbott and other Republicans in Texas. The TBNA hasn't spent any money on state politics based on records at the Texas Ethics Commission.

Texas Major Hot Spots
New Cases Increase in Past Two Weeks
COVID-19 Cases Per 100,000 Population
1 Nueces 489% 585
2 McLennan 388% 292
3 Guadalupe 299% 390
4 Hidalgo 219% 380
5 Wichita 203% 227
6 Hays 184% 1162
7 Midland 180% 326
8 Comal 164% 317
9 Tom Green 158% 321
10 Brazoria 154% 599
11 Victoria 138% 522
12 Lubbock 134% 664
14 Galveston 133% 865
14 Parker 128% 184
15 Bexar 128% 544
16 Brazos 120% 804
17 Williamson 115% 371
18 Ector 113% 312
19 Cameron 92% 515
20 Webb 87% 528
21 Bell 79% 317
22 Harris 76% 654
23 Travis 73% 678
24 Smith 73% 217
25 Johnson 60% 217
26 Ellis 59% 396
27 Fort Bend 58% 472
28 Kaufman 57% 403
29 Montgomery 55% 330
30 Collin 55% 275
31 Tarrant 53% 563
32 Denton 53% 311
33 El Paso 46% 683
34 Dallas 43% 786
35 Bastrop 42% 505
36 Taylor 36% 256
37 Gregg 22% 274
38 Jefferson 32% 642
39 Randall 10% 605
40 Potter 03% 2389
Texas Major Hot Spots
New Cases Increase in Past Two Weeks
Ranked on Cases Per 100,000 Population
1 Potter 03% 2389
2 Hays 184% 1162
3 Galveston 133% 865
4 Brazos 120% 804
5 Dallas 43% 786
6 El Paso 46% 683
7 Lubbock 134% 664
8 Jefferson 32% 642
9 Travis 73% 678
10 Harris 76% 654
11 Randall 10% 605
12 Brazoria 154% 599
13 Nueces 489% 585
14 Tarrant 53% 563
15 Bexar 128% 544
16 Webb 87% 528
17 Victoria 141% 522
18 Cameron 92% 515
19 Bastrop 42% 505
20 Fort Bend 58% 472
21 Kaufman 57% 403
22 Ellis 59% 396
23 Guadalupe 299% 390
24 Williamson 115% 371
25 Hidalgo 219% 380
26 Montgomery 55% 343
27 Midland 180% 326
28 Tom Green 158% 321
29 Comal 164% 317
30 Bell 79% 317
31 Ector 113% 312
32 Denton 53% 311
33 McLennan 388% 292
34 Collin 55% 275
35 Gregg 22% 274
36 Taylor 36% 256
37 Wichita 203% 227
38 Smith 73% 217
39 Johnson 60% 217
40 Parker 128% 184

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