HOUSTON (AP) – The buzz of conversation and music that normally fills The Cottonmouth Club in downtown Houston fell silent last Friday when the owners stopped it for the second time during the corona virus pandemic – a week before the governor of Texas ordered all bars to follow suit amid a wave of infections.
Co-owner Michael Neff – wondering what he saw as a rush to reopen through the state and wondering if his industry was making matters worse, as some bars ignored the rules on occupancy limits – said he felt he was no longer a safe environment for its staff or customers in the neighborhood bar with a rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere.
He and his staff had started to hear workers in other bars getting sick.
“Texas was a terrible, terrible experiment because it experimented with people’s lives and this is where we are,” said Neff.
That ended Friday, with Governor Greg Abbott announcing that the bars would be closed again, a day after the state reported a record high of nearly 6,000 cases and the day Texas exceeded 5,000 hospitalizations for the first time.
Neff said that while criticizing 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 command and, to recently, a lack of enforcement.
It’s a sentiment shared by other bar and restaurant owners in the state and beyond who have been financially hard hit by antivirus measures and are also struggling with difficult decisions, with some shutting down again after workers became infected or shut down as a precaution due to soaring cases in their areas.
In an almost eight-minute video that he posted online earlier this month, Neff expressed his frustration, starting with a message addressed to Abbott, “You lead us to die.”
An email requesting comments from an Abbott spokesperson was not immediately returned on Friday. At a news conference on Monday, Abbott said that 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 work and health,” he added. “We can protect the lives of Texans while restoring their livelihood.”
From the time bars and clubs in Texas were able to reopen with office staff on May 22, social media has been filled with photos and videos of packed businesses that clearly didn’t meet capacity and social distance rules. But the state’s first operation to suspend alcohol licenses from companies that ignored rules happened just a week ago.
In Friday’s closing bars, Abbott said that in confirmed cases, the increase “was largely due to certain types of activities, including Texans gathering in bars.” Abbott also ordered restaurants to scale back to half capacity from Monday.
He added that “every Texan has a responsibility for themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask,” but he hasn’t imposed their use across the state. Last week, he said cities and counties could order companies to instruct their customers to wear masks.
Similar suppression occurs in several states where confirmed infections are on the increase. In some places, owners do it voluntarily, like Neff did. On Friday, Florida banned alcohol consumption in bars after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases was close to 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, which he closed as a precaution, in a Facebook post this week.
The Houston-based Saint Arnold Brewing Company, which has a popular beer garden that was still largely closed even before Friday’s order, has also struggled to navigate what it sees as inconsistent posts about how to work, said company spokesperson Lennie Ambrose.
“We follow the laws or regulations. But even if something is allowed, it may not be the right thing for Saint Arnold to do from a public health point of view, “Ambrose said.
That feeling of insecurity is repeated elsewhere. Sean Kennedy, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, said his organization told officials that the hospitality industry “is only looking for consistency, transparency and forward-looking rules.” The association has urged local governments to step up efforts to educate customers about their responsibilities when going out, Kennedy said.
An ongoing study of restaurants and bars in the Austin area by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs found many frustrated that the governor left it to cities and counties to decide whether to impose masks, said Mark Jones, one of the investigative staff involved in the study.
Neff said he’s worried about losing his bar and has been working on finding other streams of income, including selling cocktails on the go, starting a podcast, and having a nightly virtual live stream of the bar. But he said he also feels the responsibility of letting people know what went wrong and making sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We will not succeed in reopening our economies if we do it the way we did,” he said. “And no one wants that kind of sacrifice in business or in life.”
Associated Press video journalist John Mone contributed to this report.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70
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