Will the Bar and Restaurant Scene Return to Normal in 2021? We Asked Dallas Experts.

Beers with friends in an upscale dive bar? Yes, I'll take two.EXPAND
Beers with friends in an upscale dive bar? Yes, I'll take two.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Seven years ago a question was posed on Reddit, “What’s your idea of a perfect day?” The top answer, by an account that has since been deleted, was “Wake up next to someone you love, spend the day exploring the outdoors, spend the evening drinking with friends, fall asleep next to someone you love.”

Maybe throw in a plate of nachos, a sporting event or live music, and now we’re feeling a pang of wistfulness. With the vaccine rollout sputtering to a start — now in a race to stay ahead of a more contagious strain — we know there is light at the end of this tunnel, but we’re understandably skeptical at this point. Is it a light? Or Carol Anne’s closet in Poltergeist?

So, we reached out to a few local experts, including a social scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and a few bar and restaurant owners and operators for their insight. Among other questions, we had one main one: When can we have a beer at a bar with our friends?

In terms of COVID-19 immunizations, Jenkins says at least 70% of the population needs to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. For reference, three weeks after a vaccine became available, only 3% of the population had received their first shots.

“But don’t extrapolate too much from that,” Jenkins warns, saying there are several more vaccines in the pipeline, in addition to a mega vaccination center that should open this week to accommodate a steady increase in supply as well as a substantial increase in the pace of immunizations.

However, Jenkins cautions that January and February are going to “continue to be very hard.” Both hospitalization rates and cases have set records in the past few days, a probable result of holiday travel.

When pressed for a timeline on when we’ll be able to safely have beers with our friends at a bar, “Hopefully by the fall, but being very optimistic this summer,” Jenkins says.

Dr. Timothy Bray is the director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research at UTD. He's also on the faculty in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.

“If our adherence to behavior — like hand-washing and social-distancing and not having big gatherings — continues to improve, then maybe we do see a return to normalcy in the end of summer. The next school year looks a little more normal than this year. But, the reality is there are so many moving parts,” Bray says, perhaps referencing the new, more contagious strain, the roll-out of vaccines and immunizations for our most vulnerable and exposed populations.

“All of it boils down to a policy conversation,” says Bray of how his department studies the intersection of people, policy and place as it relates to the pandemic. “This idea of how human behaviors intersect with the places we visit and the policy that governs those interactions. We look at COVID, and the mask mandate, we look at the degree to which these policies insulate us or don’t.”

He says some of the insulation that policy offers is a result of us not always doing what's in our best interest: “If we all washed our hands, wore masks and stayed home when we were sick, we wouldn’t need half the policies we have right now. But, the reality is, when you start looking at places where you are more vulnerable, which includes restaurants, where you’re taking off your masks, we have to start looking at, well how well are we going to follow the rules?”

Ten Bell's dumpster speaks of truthEXPAND
Ten Bell's dumpster speaks of truth
Lauren Drewes Daniels

Ten Bell Taverns owner Meri Dahlke got stranded in England last March when the coronavirus first hit. It wasn’t the worst thing to happen to the anglophile, but back at home, she struggled to keep her restaurant and bar in the Bishop Arts District running.

Takeout was a big challenge, but they streamlined operations, which helped weather some of the financial burden caused by the pandemic.

“I’ve learned we’ve got some extremely loyal and supportive customers,” Dahlke says. “From our fundraiser months ago until now, they’ve kept our lights on. I am forever grateful for that.

“But things shift so quickly, and with no real help from the state, our luck could change and we’d have to shutter. If it gets to the point we start digging a deep hole we can’t get out of, we’ll make some tough choices."

Dallas dive bar Lakewood Landing turned a portion of their parking lot into a patio, expanding their capacity to safely seat customers.

“This additional seating has been really popular with our clientele,” the Landing’s Jordan Lowery says. “Who knows why it works? Our patio, during normal times, can become quite cramped. The seating in the parking lot is spaced out and, with accommodating weather, it can be very chill.”

Lowery imagines they’ll keep the additional outdoor space long-term in one form or another.

Originally installed to tidy up after a few pounds of crawfish, this hospital-grade handwashing station is now a serious selling point.EXPAND
Originally installed to tidy up after a few pounds of crawfish, this hospital-grade handwashing station is now a serious selling point.
Lauren Drewes Daniels

Dallas Hale is the CEO of Shell Shack restaurants, which offer something more like a dining experience; boiled crustaceans are served on big platters with all the tools and accouterments to crack, chisel and cajole out delicate slivers of meat, all while sipping giant frozen drinks. TVs dot the walls. They even have a hospital-grade hand-washing station that, in normal times, was installed to remove the smell of seafood or bright red Cajun spices from finger tips.

“We’re doing everything we can inside our restaurants, but our to-go is still way up over dine-in,” Hale says.

When asked about a return to normalcy in 2021, Hale takes in an I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it approach. Running multiple restaurants in different counties has been challenging, whipsawed by a stream of protocol changes, like a recent Travis County mandate, overruled by the state at the last minute, closing all restaurants and bars between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. from Dec. 31 through Jan. 3.

“I have some hope, but unfortunately nothing has come to fruition,” Hale said recently. “We hope it’ll get back to normal, but what is the new normal? What is normal? I’m very skeptical.”

As restaurants dog paddle to keep their chins above the water line, cautious optimism points to the fall for a beer in a bar with our friends. (While the Carol Anne’s closet simile points to an unknown abyss.)

“We’re still learning how this virus behaves,” Bray says. “We’ve got the latest mutation that has shown up, and it's a bit more aggressive in terms of contagiousness. So, we can sit here today and say, 'I really think by the end of summer we should start to see sort of return to normal,' but we don’t know how any new strain — either the strain that’s out there now or another new one — is going to react to the vaccine.”

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