Texans could soon grab a freshly poured pint from their favorite watering hole. Wednesday, several club owners filed a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott that demanded the state’s bars be allowed to reopen.
Brandon Hays is joining the suit on behalf of his Dallas establishments The Whippersnapper, Tiny Victories and High Fives. He shuttered all three as a result of Abbott’s recent executive order that forced the state’s bars to close.
Hays’ main qualm with the order is that it only singled out clubs, he said.
“This isn’t about being open; it never was,” Hays said. “It’s about being fair.”
Issued in late June, Abbott’s executive order enforced an occupancy limit of 50% on restaurants and other indoor establishments. It also abruptly closed the state’s bars, prompting many club owners to claim it targeted them unfairly.
Attorney Jason Friedman filed the lawsuit on behalf of Hays and several other bar owners. If a judge were to rule against Abbott, the state’s bars could reopen right away, Friedman said.
Abbott’s office did not return requests for comment. In a June press release, though, the governor defended his decision to close the state’s bars in the interest of public health.
“It is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”
Dallas bars Stirr, Citizen and Island Club are also listed as plaintiffs. They joined Hays’ three bars in filing the lawsuit, as well as The Side Street Bar in Terrell and Austin’s Play on West 6th.
Friedman filed the temporary injunction and temporary restraining order, Stirr et al. v. Abbott, in Dallas’ 68th Judicial District Court on Wednesday morning. If granted, it would prevent the defendants from revoking a bar owner’s license and from prosecuting them for operating. It would also grant the plaintiffs relief in excess of $1 million, although Friedman said that amount could increase as they calculate their losses.
Abbott’s order is arbitrary, since it only attacks free-standing bars and not those in restaurants, hotels and stadiums, Friedman said.
“[Abbott] didn’t treat the stand-alone bars like he treated everyone else,” he said. “What’s the difference between a stand-alone bar and a hotel bar? There is none.”
Abbott’s order could set a dangerous precedent if it’s allowed to remain intact, Hays said; it would allow the governor to close any business he wanted based on “speculative” data.
Last week, the nonprofit medical society Texas Medical Association released a chart that ranks activities according to risk level. Going to a bar received a high-risk ranking, as did attending a church service, working out at a gym and eating at a buffet. But Abbott has allowed churches, gyms and restaurants to remain open.
It’s that sort of inconsistency that will ultimately lead a judge to rule Abbott’s order unjust, Friedman said. Bars should be allowed to operate under the same conditions as other indoor establishments, he added.
“The law in my view is clear, and Abbott did not follow the law,” Friedman said.
For his part, Hays said he wishes the governor had done more to help the state’s bar owners. At the very least, he said, Abbott should have offered some sort of guidance. Instead, the bars were closed with three hours’ notice and no clear plan for reopening or relief, Hays said.
Now, Hays said he has to contend with landlords, vendors and employees, all of whom look to him for answers. But solutions are hard to come by.
“It feels like whack-a-mole trying to figure out exactly how to lead in such uncertainty,” Hays said. “The uncertainty – it definitely looms.”
Editor's note: This story originally stated, incorrectly, that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, was named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Gov. Greg Abbott is the only defendant named in the suit.
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