Chris Polone woke up on Friday to around 100 phone calls. The owner of The Rail Club Live in Fort Worth said they all asked the same thing: Had he heard about Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to shutter the state’s bars?
Polone said he was shocked when he learned of the governor’s latest mandate. Not only was there no warning, but he was also counting on his venue to make around $6,000 that night.
“We’ve done everything shy of selling our organs to stay open, then you just wake up to that,” Polone said.
Abbott had also closed bars in March after he issued a mandate that halted “nonessential services.” Last Friday’s order just targeted the state’s bars, though, prompting dozens of North Texas club owners to file lawsuits against the governor.
The Rail Club Live had struggled to survive during Texas’ first iteration of bar shutdowns, Polone said. After being closed for three months, he was looking forward to making up for lost time.
Now, Abbott was forcing him to close again, with no reopen date in sight.
“It’s been a roller coaster from hell,” Polone said, adding he plans on reopening his business for a show on either Friday or Saturday.
Polone, along with the Texas Bar and Nightclub Association, is suing the state. But that’s not the only lawsuit Abbott is facing. Dallas attorney Jason Friedman is representing dozens of other North Texas bar owners in suing the governor and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Over the weekend, Abbott acknowledged to KVIA-TV in El Paso that he allowed bars to reopen too soon. Bars are particularly dangerous settings during the pandemic, Abbott said, because people "go to bars to get close and to drink and to socialize, and that's the kind of thing that stokes the spread of the coronavirus.
"If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the reopening of bars," he said.
A spokesman for the state’s alcohol regulatory agency said he was unable to comment on pending litigation.
Polone thinks the state’s targeting of bar owners is unjust. Six Flags and Hurricane Harbor are still operating, he said, and the Fort Worth Lone Star Gun Show remains scheduled for July. How is it fair then, Polone asked, that “mom-and-pop” bars with already reduced capacities are being attacked?
Brandon Hays, the owner of Dallas bars The Whippersnapper, Tiny Victories and High Fives, is also entering the ring. He said that he feels as though Abbott’s order is ambushing the state’s bar owners on shaky legal grounds.
“That’s all we’re saying here: It’s an overreach of power,” Hays said.
Abbott’s order is flawed, Friedman said. It doesn’t technically close bars, but rather forbids patrons from entering one. However, instead of the bar-goer, it’s the bar owner who could face serious repercussions. It’s on those grounds that he’s filing suit.
Friedman argues Abbott's order also didn’t give bar owners ample time to prepare for closure.
Since the order also shutters some bars that serve food, some North Texas club owners are losing around $20,000 in perishable inventory, Friedman said. Yet the governor has not provided bar owners with any relief to make up for those losses.
“These people have families, too,” Friedman said. “They have businesses. They have rent to be paid.”
Hays agreed that the state should do more to keep its bar owners afloat during the second closure.
“Our landlords don’t stop asking for rent checks,” he said.
Friday’s order also allows restaurants to remain open at 50% capacity.
Yet Friedman said it could be argued that bars are safer than restaurants. At restaurants, several employees — such as busboys, waitstaff and chefs — work to serve patrons. At bars, though, the most contact a server has with a drink is when they open a bottle.
Like restaurants, bars can provide 6 feet of space between seating and require masks to be worn when leaving one’s table, Friedman added.
Friday’s order also exempted churches from an occupancy limit. Last Sunday, Abbott joined Vice President Mike Pence in attending a service, titled “Celebrate Freedom,” at First Baptist Dallas.
It’s estimated more than 2,000 people attended the service, and masks were not mandatory, according to The Hill. A choir of over 100 also performed, ignoring health experts’ warnings that the coronavirus is easily spread through singing.
The fact that Abbott attended the megachurch’s event indicates he’s less concerned with safety than he is appeasing his base, Friedman said.
“Frankly, [Abbott’s reopening plan is] a disaster, and he’s trying to put a Band-Aid on it,” he said. “He needed to find a scapegoat for this and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to nail these bars.’”
Some have compared these bar owners to Shelley Luther, the Dallas hair salon owner who was jailed for defying Abbott’s original order to close nonessential establishments. Hays said he bristles at the comparison, though, since bar owners are working through the legal system, not against it.
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Hays isn’t upset with hair salon, restaurant and gym owners for remaining open, he said. Rather, he’s angry at the government for arbitrarily cherry-picking which establishments can continue to operate.
“We’re not fighting to be open: We’re fighting for fair treatment,” Hays said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
Polone said he understands the governor’s concern for Texans’ safety. But people can get coronavirus from any number of places — gun shows and churches among them.
“It’s just a double standard,” Polone said. “If you’re going to do it, then you’ve got to shut everybody down. You can't just pick on the bars.”