Central Austin bar owners plan for the future with no opening date in sight

Texas lawmakers and health experts are still formulating plans to give bar owners guidance on how to open and when. (Photo by Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper; design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas lawmakers and health experts are still formulating plans to give bar owners guidance on how to open and when. (Photo by Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper; design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)

Texas lawmakers and health experts are still formulating plans to give bar owners guidance on how to open and when. (Photo by Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper; design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)

On the evening of May 15, some bar owners in Austin and around the state will take the plywood down off their windows and turn on the music inside.

"We're opening up our entertainment district because you can't throw all this together in one day," said Bob Woody, who owns a number of bars in Austin's Sixth Street entertainment district, including Shakespeare's Pub, Buford's Backyard Beer Garden and The Ranch.

But there will be one crucial difference from what the Texas Bar and Nightclub Association is calling a "soft reopening" and a normal night out on Sixth Street because when the plywood comes down, there will still be no customers.

May 18 is another milestone reopening date in Texas: Gyms, offices and manufacturing facilities will be allowed to open their doors, joining businesses already permitted to reopen earlier in May such as restaurants, barbershops, hair salons and swimming pools.

But Gov. Greg Abbott has set no date for bars to reopen. In a May 5 press conference, Abbott said he recognizes bar owners desperately need to open to pay their bills, but the state is still formulating a plan to give guidance on how to do so safely.

"We also have to recognize the very nature of a bar. It brings people close together in an enclosed space, in a setting that really is the type of setting that promotes the transmission of infectious diseases," Abbott said.

On April 20, Woody and other members of the TBNA created a list of self-regulations they would impose to operate safely, including installing tables and chairs to adhere to social distancing guidelines, using disposable cups and plates, having staff wear masks and requiring customers to apply hand sanitizer before walking through the door.

Woody said the restrictions would be similar to what restaurants are doing to open to 25% capacity. He believes there will be an announcement May 18 about an opening date for bars and has 400 employees ready to return to work when the approval is given.

"I’ve offered everybody their jobs back, and we’re getting ready to open. Their jobs are there; we’re just not allowed to have customers," Woody said.

Short-term solutions

In the two months since bars have been shut down, some business owners have turned to creative methods to keep their employees working and recoup a little bit of revenue.

Travis Tober, the owner of East Austin neighborhood bar Nickel City, closed down the bar March 16. Nickel City tried deliveries for a few days before shutting down completely, and Tober thought about what he could do to stay open in some way.

"At Nickel City itself, the main thing [that brings people in] is the atmosphere, the bartenders, the people. That’s where the magic happens," Tober said.

Tober said he cannot offer that atmosphere without allowing guests inside the bar. All he could do, he said, is give customers something they are not able to make at home until a plan is released allowing him to reopen his doors. On May 5, Nickel City opened a pop-up selling frozen drinks along with wings, fries and other food items from the bar's food truck, Delray Cafe.

"The name of the game is keep your name out there and try to break even," Tober said.

When a customer orders a frozen drink from Nickel City, they receive the mixer in a styrofoam cup and a sealed bottle of alcohol. They also have to order food alongside their drink. Both practices are because of liquor laws set by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The TABC distinguishes bars from restaurants by looking at how much revenue comes from food and how much comes from alcohol. If 51% of an establishment's revenue comes from alcohol sales for consumption on-site, that business is classified as a bar—and not allowed to open—whereas a restaurant with a bar attached can open its dining room to customers.

The most prominent example of the regulatory differences between the two types of businesses is the familiar white signs with black lettering and "51%" outlined in red that bars are required to put in their windows. The signs tell customers that handguns, although allowed in restaurants due to laws permitting open carry, are forbidden in these establishments.

Chris Porter, a spokesperson with the TABC, said the department's regional offices are working with bar owners directly on a case-by-case basis to examine sales numbers and the 51% designation. At this time, before a date is set for bars reopening, Porter said "we're unable to give overarching or inclusive advice" broadly to every bar in the state.

Woody sees the state's decision to allow restaurants with liquor licenses to reopen while keeping bars closed as a "double standard" and said he is waiting on answers from lawmakers to right the wrong.

"I can go until [May 18] and need to be told what’s going on. If there’s a reason to do this we need to hear the reason," he said.

'We don't know if people are going to bar hop anymore'

Like other business owners cautiously planning for reopening, bar owners told Community impact Newspaper they have no idea what to expect from customers once their doors are open.

C.K. Chin—an ownership partner in downtown restaurants Wu Chow and Swift's Attic as well as Native Hostel, an East Austin bar, hostel and event venue—said people may start treating trips out to the bar as opportunities to see a small group of specific friends rather than chances to wander around the city and meet new people.

"We don't know if people are going to bar hop any more," Chin said. "It's going to be more intentional."

Chin said he is considering a reservation model in Native Hostel once the venue is allowed to reopen. Similar to the restaurant model, guests would select a specific time, the venue would be spaced out appropriately, and instead of bellying up to the bar, customers would be waited on by a bartender.

It would be a complete reversal in the way bars and event venues do business, Chin said.

"The game has been to maximize the amount of people in the building. We're talking one person less than what the fire marshal says. For us, it's such a change in the overall perception of things," he said.

But restaurant and bar owners are used to adjusting on the fly, he said. If a menu item is not selling, business owners pull it off and lean into what people are ordering. If people are not walking in the door, the owner finds a way to market to them. The industry is full of adaptable and creative people who will look for every way to survive, but they need educated guidance from leaders, according to Chin.

"I want [the regulations] to be educated and thought out. I want them to be informed and coming from a position of science and data rather than of feeling," he said.

For now, all bar owners can do is wait until they are given the go ahead to open up, but Tober said every day that goes by without any information is another day that a bar owner somewhere in the state could decide to throw in the towel for good.

"We need to have a plan to reopen or else we’re going to lose a lot of people. A lot of businesses are going to lose their life savings," he said. "I need a date and a plan. That's all I need."