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North Texas Bar Owners Continue Fight Against Abbott's Shutdown Order

Texas bar owners are sick of being stalemated.EXPAND
Texas bar owners are sick of being stalemated.

North Texas club owners are becoming increasingly exasperated with Gov. Greg Abbott over his June executive order that closed the state’s stand-alone bars. Now, they’re ramping up calls to reopen or to receive some form of financial assistance.

Thursday, Dot’s Hop House & Cocktail Courtyard in Deep Ellum posted a video to YouTube titled “An Open Letter to Governor Abbott.” In it, owner Jeff Brightwell pleads with Abbott to provide relief to bar owners who were forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I believe we’re all in this fight together, but it seems bars are shouldering far more of the burden than other businesses,” Brightwell says in the video. “We need help, and we need a plan.”

Abbott has cited health experts' warnings that the coronavirus is easily spread inside bars, many of which have poor ventilation and cramped quarters. But the state’s club owners take issue with the fact that other establishments, such as restaurants and churches, are allowed to continue operating.

Owners of bars that earn more than 51% of sales in alcohol complain that Abbott has yet to provide them with any solutions.

Sunday, Dallas' East Bound and Down Icehouse announced on Facebook that it's closing for good. Brightwell said he fears that at this rate, countless other businesses will shutter within the next six weeks.

“The rope, we’re at the end of it,” he said. “I don’t understand how everyone else gets bailed out on some level or allowed to operate, but not the bars.”

Abbott’s office did not return a request for comment.

Brightwell said he created the video to provide the governor with a possible solution: refund bar owners the 6.7% mixed beverage tax they pay the state. The rebate would span a year prior to the March date that Abbott issued his first closure order.

To pay for the campaign, dubbed #refund6point7, Brightwell suggested that the governor dip into Texas’ Economic Stabilization Fund, which holds more than $10 billion, according to the Texas Tribune. Also called the rainy day fund, it was created to help the state during economic downturns.

Bars already have to pay nearly double in taxes what other small businesses do, Brightwell said. The state’s club owners should have some of that returned to help their establishments survive prolonged closure, he said.

“I get that life is not fair — I’ll deal with it — but I think my government should be just,” Brightwell said.

“Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean that rent stops,” he continued.

Meanwhile, some bar owners are taking to the streets. Chris Polone, owner of Fort Worth’s The Rail Club Live, staged a protest Friday outside the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s Austin headquarters.

Police were present during the protest, Polone said, and the TABC parking lot was closed off to bar owners. That illustrated the agency's unwillingness to hear them out, he said.

But the TABC leases its building from a private owner who requested protesters remain on the sidewalk, said spokesman Chris Porter. He also said that the agency has taken steps to engage with industry members since the pandemic’s outset.

“Anytime anybody wants to discuss the issues with TABC, we invite them to contact either the local office or to contact the headquarters through email or the other means,” Porter said.

Polone said that no one from the organization stepped out to speak with protesters.

Earlier this summer, Polone organized a statewide demonstration during which hundreds of bars reopened to flout the governor's order. He also joined in a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against Abbott, but a federal judge denied it in July.

Polone said the TRO was shot down because Abbott only wrote the executive order and is not charged with enforcing it. That’s part of why Polone and other bar owners decided to shift their focus to the state's alcoholic beverage regulatory agency, he said.

The TABC has offered bar owners few solutions, which Polone said has frustrated them to no end.

“We’re bar owners, right? We can’t talk to them, but that’s what they’re here for," he said. "The entire purpose of their existence is to work with us.”

The TABC does not actually have to enforce the governor's executive order, Polone said. There's precedent for that, too; multiple Texas sheriffs have refused to carry out Abbott's mask mandate, according to CBS News.

Porter said that the agency will continue to uphold the governor's order.

During a livestream video on Polone’s Facebook, a demonstrator named Brandon Houser said the executive order also hurt his show promotion prospects. The San Antonio resident said he recently had to refund a sold-out concert out of his own pocket.

“This ain’t just affecting just the bars,” Houser said. “This affects everybody involved in this industry."

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