As Texas breweries received permission to begin reopening, individual business owners had to grapple with a difficult question: How do you safely open an alcohol-dependent business during a health crisis?
Many local breweries delayed their openings to spend more time contemplating that question. Welcoming the public back into a taproom takes time and money — to stock up on sanitizer, for example — and it also requires navigating a thicket of safety regulations and suggestions from federal, state and scientific authorities.
I got a glimpse of some of those preparations during opening weekend at Pegasus City Brewery, when a small group of taproom regulars tested out the business’ new operating procedures.
We reserved a time slot by text message, then received a text back listing house ground rules: Wear a mask and use sanitizer to gain entry, don’t visit with people from other households, don’t rearrange the furniture, order through table service, clean hands after touching anything and wait for staff members to hold open doors.
Table necessities in a pandemic: rules and hand sanitzer. Just bring your own mask.
Inside the taproom, life felt, well, almost normal. Only a dozen people were in the building, owners included, and spacing between tables was marked with tape. On each table, next to the hand sanitizer, a disposable flyer reminded us of both the rules and the beers on tap.
I looked over at another table and felt a pang of jealousy: They’d brought a picnic lunch and a deck of cards.
Co-owner Adrian Cotten says making the taproom feel normal and welcoming took hours of thought and care.
“When the first conversation started about any business reopening, as a team we’d sit down for hours and hours and read everything we could, all the guidelines from different entities, and we kind of collated it,” Cotten says. “Each set of guidelines would look a little different, depending on if you had multiple entrances or just one, how your bar’s set up, that kind of thing. We ran through about 32 different scenarios.”
I ask if the number 32 is an exaggeration — and she doesn’t think so.
“Once we set on a plan we felt good with as a team, and by good I mean not only we felt comfortable with it, but we felt super confident that we could execute it properly, we reached out to our regulars and our friends and let them vet it,” she says. “'What is going to make you feel safe and that you can come here without worrying? Does this sound like something that would make you want to come back?' We had people who would come here every single day, and those are the ones that would tell us the truth.”
It helps that the brewery’s regulars include a number of doctors, nurses, scientists and UT Southwestern employees, including at least one researcher studying COVID-19. Cotten added their feedback to Texas state requirements and the recommendations published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Keep your hands to yourself.
For now, patrons who want to sit inside the taproom will follow the same procedure we did: Sign up for a specific time slot, read and agree to a pre-drink text message laying down the rules, enter wearing a mask (staff members hold doors open), order at the table and only socialize with other tables from a six-foot distance. Pegasus City’s arcade games and pingpong table are off limits.
The patio outside, meanwhile, is first-come, first-served, with no booking required. The brewery’s bathrooms are divided so patio and indoor customers can wash up separately.
There’s one more variable that complicates efforts to keep a brewery safe: tipsy customers. But Pegasus City’s employees mapped out scenarios and plans for that possibility, too.
“Once people have a couple of beers, you really see that if you didn’t have a solid setup and system, it could fall apart,” Cotten says. “But it’s really up to the brewery. I feel responsible that even if people are forgetting to do X, Y and Z, that we’re still being as vigilant. The trust is placed in us by everybody else, and so we don’t take that lightly at all.”
That’s one of the main lessons her staff learned during their trial opening period. The other is more light-hearted.
Cotten saw the card-playing customers, too, and now she’s adding a new line to the pre-visit text message: Feel free to bring your own games.
Pegasus City Brewery, 2222 Vantage St. Open 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Drive-thru pickup for beer is available 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.