The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission slapped 18 club owners with suspensions after they participated in Freedom Fest, Saturday’s statewide bar protest that aimed to challenge the governor’s latest pandemic shutdown order.
Organizer Chris Polone, who owns The Rail Club Live in Fort Worth, said he's also under the gun. This week, the TABC announced it launched an investigation into his club, too.
“They’re committing small business genocide is what they’re doing,” Polone said of the TABC. “This is like USSR type stuff."
The state’s alcoholic beverage regulatory agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Polone’s license had been suspended earlier in the month after he hosted another protest at his club. Barring further penalty, it will be reinstated on Aug. 5, he said.
The Rail Club did not serve any alcohol during Freedom Fest, Polone said, and only 40 people attended.
Wednesday, the TABC posted a video from inside The Rail Club to its Facebook page. The caption claimed it had been shot by an undercover agent at Saturday’s event.
Polone doubts that’s true, though; he said he knew everyone there. In addition, he suspects that the 12-second video could have been stolen from his own livestream.
Still, there’s a chance that a TABC agent disguised themselves as a journalist to gain entry, he said.
The TABC’s Facebook video attracted its fair share of critics.
“All this did was prove everyone was following all covid 19 [sic] protocol and is perfectly capable of being open for business safely. Good job,” one user commented on the post.
Another echoed that sentiment.
“Looks like everyone was social distancing nicely,” they wrote.
Polone said several of his constitutional rights, such as his right to peaceably assemble, have been trampled on by the TABC and Gov. Greg Abbott. In addition, he said the government infringed on his right to fair compensation since it commandeered his private property without pay.
Abbott’s office did not return a request for comment.
If the state’s government were really concerned about preventing coronavirus spread, Polone said, then it would have closed down each bar protest on Saturday.
“Obviously, this isn’t about public safety anymore,” he said. “It’s something deeper than that.”
Polone believes Abbott is unfairly targeting Texas’ standalone bars. The fact they are unable to operate in any fashion is unjust, he said.
As long as he has his liquor license, Polone said it’s illegal for him to operate inside his building, even if there’s no alcohol sold.
At this point, Polone added, he would fare better if his license were revoked. Then he could at least host events, such as guitar lessons and church sessions, he said.
“That’s why we’re fighting this thing so hard,” Polone said. “It’s not the fact that we’re wanting to sell alcohol. We just want to be able to do things out of our property that I paid for.”
Last month, Polone joined the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance in seeking a temporary restraining order against Abbott in federal court. Although the case is pending, the TRO was denied last week after the court ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing against him.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit that was filed against the governor by several other club owners has stalled out, said plaintiff Brandon Hays, who owns Dallas bars The Whippersnapper, Tiny Victories and High Fives.
A temporary injunction hearing had been scheduled for Monday, but Hays said it was postponed after the state appealed a district judge’s decision that had granted the plaintiffs jurisdiction to sue Abbott.
Hays said that doing so put a stay on the case, which means that it can’t proceed until an appellate judge returns a favorable verdict. He’s optimistic about his prospects.
“We feel strongly that we’ll get the same result in the appellate court as we did in the district court,” Hays said.
Still, Hays is worried that the plaintiffs will soon run out of money to keep the lawsuit going. Since none of his bars have been operating, it’s become increasingly difficult to keep up with business expenses, not to mention legal fees.
At the same time his bars aren’t creating revenue, Hays said he’s been having to field calls from landlords, vendors and lenders.
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“My livelihood has been completely cut,” he said. “I’m running out of options, and desperation is starting to set in.”
More than anything, Hays said he wishes that Abbott would at least engage the state’s bar owners in a conversation. It would be great if he’d offer relief or come up with a tangible reopening plan, Hays said, but it’s been radio silence so far.
Hays said he’s frustrated that the state’s government is ignoring hundreds of thousands of bar workers who lost their jobs because of Abbott’s executive order. Although he did not participate in Freedom Fest, he said he understands why so many bar owners felt compelled to.
“It just feels like I’m sitting here watching my career erode,” Hays said. “It’s slowly, painfully and time-consumingly being taken away, and it feels like there’s nothing we can do.”