Texas Bars and Clubs Once Again Caught in the Middle of COVID Politics

Rail Club owners Chris Polone's business is about providing booze and music to adults, and he'd like to keep it that way.
Levi Leveridge
Rail Club owners Chris Polone's business is about providing booze and music to adults, and he'd like to keep it that way.
Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the temporary closure of businesses that earn 51% or more of their revenue from selling alcohol — bars and most music venues, in other words. Owners who refused to comply faced fines.

A new year has brought a new order. On Oct. 11, Abbott decreed that Texas businesses cannot require proof of COVID-19 vaccinations from employees and consumers.

To put that another way: Before a vaccine was available to staunch the spread of COVID-19, bars had to close for fear that they'd become super-spreading hotspots for the virus. Now that vaccines are available and widely credited with turning the tide on the pandemic, these same venues can stay open — maskless and at full capacity — but they can't require their customers or employees to be vaccinated. Any venue owner who doesn't obey faces a $1,000 fine.

Some bar and live music venue owners are naturally feeling baffled — put upon, even.

“Countless Texans fear losing their livelihoods because they object to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination for reasons of personal conscience, based on a religious belief or for medical reasons,” Abbott said in his latest executive order.

Presumably, the servers and bartenders who lost their jobs last year as a direct effect of the governor's previous order can sympathize with those who fear for their livelihoods. They lost theirs, after all.  Of course, those same servers and bartenders are the ones who'll now be sucking down the viruses spewed by the unvaccinated folks whose tender consciences and demand for bodily autonomy don't extend to thinking about anybody else's body.

“It is extremely arbitrary,” said Chris Polone, owner The Rail Club in Fort Worth. “The infuriating aspect of it is they closed down 51 percenters for an entire year. All, ironically, small business owners. They also had the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission issue $1,000 citations to bar owners where customers were not wearing masks and then not even a month later, he [Gov. Greg Abbott] flips the script and starts fining local municipalities for enforcing masks.”

The Rail Club reopened in June 2020 at full capacity against the governor's command, resulting in an ongoing lawsuit between the club and the state.

To be clear, The Rail Club doesn't demand that its customers be vaccinated, even as some touring acts have refused to perform in venues that don't require either proof of vaccinations or negative COVID tests for fans. The Rail Club's COVID policy states:

"We believe that if you're competent enough to make the decision to drink alcohol ... then you're more than competent enough to make the best decisions for your body.” - The Rail Club

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“God bless you if you're vaccinated, God bless you if you're not vaccinated. We sell micro doses of poison for a living and we throw parties and shows for a living. We are the last industry that needs to tell you what to do with your body. We believe that if you're competent enough to make the decision to drink alcohol, or drink our microdoses of poison in that metaphor, then you're more than competent enough to make the best decisions for your body.”

The Rail Club will not book any artist who has a COVID policy that does not coincide with the club's rules. Whether you agree with Polone's stance or not, the club has been consistently libertarian throughout the pandemic, which is more than can be said for certain politicians.

The governor's latest order doesn't allow artists and show promoters to go the other way and require vaccinations, regardless of what their consciences might tell them. Live Nation set a precedent on Oct. 4 by requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID test results within 72 hours before the start of a show. This policy applied to employees, artists and concert-goers.

Using music festival Lollapalooza’s 90% vaccination rate as a marker of success, Live Nation has held firm to its “Vax Up For Music” policy, but it only applies where the law allows it, which, as of this week, doesn't include Texas.

Live Nation has yet to update Texas concert showings to reflect the new order. Health-check requirement warnings are still visible for Live Nation's Texas venues. The Live Nation website continues to list Dos Equis Pavilion, House of Blues Dallas and The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory as venues subject to the policy.

“I'm a big vaccine supporter,” said Allen Falkner, owner of The Nines in Deep Ellum. “It's FDA approved. ... For the general public, there's no reason why they shouldn't or can't get vaccinated. It's just foolish. There's all this fake negative propaganda out there and everything trying to deter people from getting vaccinations.”

Falkner says The Nines staff is fully vaccinated, but he's not placing any demands on his customers.

“We're kind of like a big family, everybody is very close, so I didn't have to force anyone to get vaccinated. We just simply just said, ‘Hey, we need to get everybody vaccinated.’ Everybody was on board, everybody got vaccinated, there was never any dissension in the ranks at all.”

But Falkner says it's difficult to for bars and restaurants to enforce vaccine requirements for their customers. His staff members wear masks and welcome guests to do the same when they are not eating or drinking.

Many artists featured at The Nines are local talent with longstanding relationships with the venue. Many are vaccinated, and Falkner has yet to encounter an artist who requests proof of vaccination from guests as a requirement for performing.

As a vaccination supporter, Falkner’s frustration has less to do with the precautions against COVID than the the lack of consistency between local, state and federal governments.

“This needs to quit being a political issue,” Falkner says. “Our government is not serving the people correctly. They need to get on the same page. They need to make some decisions. They need to make some agreements and compromises. Whatever they do, they have to have a unified voice, because right now, nobody trusts what the government has to say.”

Abbott's latest order says specifically that it's partly in response to the “political overreach by the Biden Administration,” which it claims is “bullying private entities into imposing COVID-19 vaccination mandates.”

Some Dallas music venues such as The Granada, The Factory in Deep Ellum and The Majestic Theater straddled the fence throughout the confusion and were implementing COVID policies on a show-by-show basis at artist’s discretion.

“Our stance at the Granada is to give the band what they need to give the ultimate show,” Michael Schoder, owner of The Granada, said. “We are a reflection of the artist's desires within the realms of the law. The show must go on.”