Saturday, more than 300 bars across the state say they will participate in Freedom Fest, an event its organizer has dubbed “the biggest bar protest in Texas history.”
Chris Polone, the owner of Fort Worth’s The Rail Club Live, arranged the festival to challenge an executive order that forced the state’s bars to close. Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandate turned club owners into scapegoats to distract from his administration’s inability to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, Polone said.
Aside from its alliterative ring, Polone said he chose the event’s name because it’s memorable.
“The first word of it is ‘freedom,’” he said, “and I think that’s something that Texans and Americans since COVID-19 has taken place have forgotten exists.”
Since Abbott’s executive order closed the state’s stand-alone bars in June, he’s been hit with multiple lawsuits filed by disgruntled club owners, Polone included. The sudden closure angered many bar industry professionals, in part because other public-facing venues such as restaurants and churches could remain open. Now, Texas bar owners are fighting for the right to serve responsibly.
In June, Polone joined the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance in seeking a temporary restraining order in U.S. district court against Abbott, which would have allowed bars to reopen. Although the case is still pending, the TRO was denied on Wednesday afternoon, said Austin attorney Brent Webster, who represents the plaintiffs.
The court ruled that under federal law, their order could not be granted against the governor because they lack standing against him, Webster said.
“I think the judge did hear us out," he said. "Unfortunately, in Texas, in this particular area of federal court, it’s very hard to sue the governor."
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The bars have other options moving forward, Webster said. One is that they could add the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission as a defendant.
The state’s alcoholic beverage regulatory agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Another lawsuit, which was filed by Dallas attorney Jason Friedman in state court on behalf of several other bar owners, could have legs, though. Tuesday, a district judge found that they have the jurisdiction to challenge the governor’s executive order. The judge also ordered the depositions of two billionaires, Dallas CEO Robert Rowling and Houston restaurateur Tilman Fertitta, who are members of Abbott's COVID-19 Business Advisory Task Force.
A temporary injunction hearing for that case is scheduled for Monday. Barring an appeal, Friedman said his clients would be allowed to reopen their businesses if the judge grants the injunction.
“It may have the effect of allowing [other bars] to open,” Friedman said. “It depends on what the order of the court says.”
To participate in Freedom Fest, Polone set a list of rules for each club owner to follow. In addition to stringent safety guidelines, each venue’s capacity will be limited to 25%, Polone said.
Entry is $10 at the door, and 100% of those proceeds will benefit a charity of each bar owner’s choosing. Polone is donating his club’s profits to Brandi’s Play in the Shade Foundation, a nonprofit that provides shades for children’s playgrounds.
“We’re putting Governor Abbott in the position to shut down benefit shows across the state of Texas as a way to bring attention to this issue, because he doesn’t want to talk about it," Polone said.
Bands Cutthroat Conspiracy and MESSER will play The Rail Club’s event.
Cooter Brown’s in Burleson, Deep Ellum’s The Green Room and G Willickers Pub in Arlington are some of the North Texas bars that are joining the effort. So is Kilgore’s Machine Shed Bar & Grill, which made national headlines in June after its owner told The Washington Post that Abbott’s order is unconstitutional.
Polone is no stranger to controversy. On July 4, he held another protest at his venue, during which he ripped up a TABC order to close. He’s since had his liquor license suspended.
Polone said he still had to pay his liquor taxes this month.
“Taxation without representation,” he said with a dry laugh.
Polone said that his venue will not be serving alcohol. Other bars are free to choose whether they’ll take that risk, however.
In April, Dallas hair salon owner Shelley Luther was jailed for defying state and county shutdown orders to close her business. Although his event will undoubtedly attract the attention of authorities, Polone said he’s not afraid of meeting a similar fate.
“It’s either go up in a blaze of glory or starve yourself out,” he said.
If Abbott doesn’t lift his shutdown order, then Freedom Fest will become a weekly occurrence, Polone said.
Although his move to flout the governor’s executive order has earned him a fair share of critics, Polone isn't bothered. He’s received death threats and been called a “killer,” but he said he's determined to see Freedom Fest through.
In addition to saving his venue, it could potentially help other club owners, bartenders and staff from facing financial ruin.
“We’re not doing this because we’re a bunch of pissed off jerk bar owners,” Polone said. “We’re doing this to literally feed our families.”