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Suds, soap and social distancing: Bars reopen with guidelines

The reopening of bars across Galveston County was celebrated by patrons, staff and business owners alike Friday, as locals returned to their favorite watering holes ahead of the Memorial Day weekend rush.

“It couldn’t get here fast enough,” said Galveston resident Belinda Arnaud, who was visiting with friends at the Poop Deck bar, 2928 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston.

Bars were among the last businesses Gov. Greg Abbott allowed to reopen under strict coronavirus-related regulations, with most being closed more than two months.

“Two months is too long for anyone to be away,” said Renae Holman, who has tended bar at the Poop Deck for almost eight years.

For staff at the Poop Deck, the highlight of returning to work was seeing familiar faces again, as well as the sights and sounds of the bar.

“I love my regulars,” bartender Lindsay Viner said. “It’s nice to be back at work, and it’s been tough being cooped up. I think everybody is about ready to cut loose and have a good time responsibly.”

At the Poop Deck, parts of the bar were roped off and tables were spread out to enforce social distancing, patrons were asked to wash their hands upon entering the building, all glasses were replaced with plastic cups, and seats and tables were disinfected as people came and went.

The building, which is two stories and overlooks the seawall, can have a maximum of 75 people inside at the mandated 25 percent capacity, owner Jarett Pahkala said.

“It’s been steady,” Pahkala said Friday afternoon. “Some of the regulars have come in because they’ve been dying to come in for a couple months now.”

At Diamond Jim’s Country Saloon and Dance Hall, 3317 Loop 197 S. in Texas City, every other bar stool and table was removed to fulfill social distancing standards, and new hand sanitizer stations were installed. Live music on the bar’s stage area won’t be possible for the foreseeable future, owner Alan Calaway said.

“You can’t have bands up there and still maintain the social distance guidelines that we need to follow,” Calaway said.

At 25 percent capacity, the bar can serve a maximum of 50 people inside at a time, Calaway said, adding that face coverings at Diamond Jim’s were recommended but not required.

“It’s very difficult to drink a cold long neck with a mask on, but we do have hand sanitizers and all the waitresses will be wearing masks and we’ll have disinfectant sprays to spray down after every service,” Calaway said. “It’ll be the cleanest bar in town.”

Nonetheless, the regulars were eager to once again gather at their favorite bar after more than two months away, Calaway said.

“The regulars have been calling wondering when we’re going to be open; I get calls daily,” he said.


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Live music slowly returning in Galveston County, but with smaller shows

Operators are reopening businesses and people are getting back to work, but the live entertainment industry is on a slower track to return because social distancing measures limit how many people can attend a live show.

Although both musicians and patrons are eager to get back to live performances, some venues face challenges covering costs as capacity limits throttle revenue coming through the doors.

It’s especially tough for people trying to make a living playing music, said Glen Burke, owner of The Guitar Lounge, 2527 Ave. P in Galveston.

“A lot of musicians have been sitting at home for a couple months,” Burke said. “They’re bored out of their minds.”

They’re ready to play, even for less money than they normally demand, just to get out and get their music back on people’s minds, Burke said.

Galveston County is known for several small venues that support a close-knit community of artists and attract locals and visitors alike.

CLOSING THE BOOK

T-Bone Tom’s, 707 state Highway 146 in Kemah, is known for hosting live music six nights a week. But when the restaurant had to shut down its dining room, it had to cancel all the bands it had booked for several months, manager and Director of Music Jeff Sauerwein said.

“I had to cancel all of the May calendar and start from scratch and will do the same thing for June,” Sauerwein said.

During normal times, the music brings in more people who stay longer and spend more money, he said.

The restaurant has been booking solo acts to its back patio, but it doesn’t have the money to pay for larger bands, Sauerwein said.

“We fully intend to keep doing the live music, but not to the degree that it was before in terms of the expense and the size of the bands,” Sauerwein said. “We certainly hope to get back to that.”

THE PATH TO REOPENED

Other venues are still trying to figure out how to reopen at all.

Small, intimate venue Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, 413 20th St. in Galveston, has been closed for about two months and is talking about spacing out tables upon an eventual return, owners and operators Joel and Angela Mora said.

That would leave about 20 to 30 people maximum in the venue, known for acoustic music, Joel Mora said.

Patrons are ready to come back, but artists are being more cautious, he said.

“Some people are more willing to come out and play,” Mora said. “Obviously, that’s how they make their living.”

But some have told the Moras they’re not coming back until next year.

And at the Old Quarter, musicians are paid what the ticket sales bring in, so the reduced capacity isn’t going to be enough to entice some artists to the venue, Joel Mora said.

Both venues and artists have been hit hard.

An early April survey by nonprofit Mid-America Arts Alliance estimated that of the Texas artists surveyed, 40 percent lost between three and five jobs because of the virus. About 34 percent had lost more than $5,000 in earnings, according to the survey.

‘ITCHING TO PLAY’

By now, artists are ready to get back to work, said Mike Marsh, a drummer in several local bands including The Lightning Rob Band and Blood Red Sky.

Gigs are Marsh’s main source of income and a busy spring full of shows was all canceled, he said.

“We were just itching to play again,” Marsh said.

Once restaurants started opening, he saw gigs pop up for some solo acoustic artists, he said.

“As a drummer, I don’t have that opportunity a lot of times,” Marsh said.

Now that bars are reopening, Marsh is starting to get more bookings. After Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday bars could reopen at 25 percent capacity, Marsh booked five gigs, he said.

Larger venues will face challenges, but Marsh is optimistic.

“I think it’s going to get better faster than people think,” Marsh said.

PLANS FOR SOLO SHOWS

The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice St. in Galveston’s downtown, canceled its spring season March 16 amid a flurry of cancellations as fears of coronavirus swept across the county.

Reopening the historic theater will pose significant logistical challenges to make sure everyone is safe, Executive Director Maureen Patton said.

Reopening at 25 percent capacity would mean selling only 200 of the theater’s 1,000 seats, and staff will have to figure out how to space those people out safely, Patton said.

But at reduced capacity, The Grand can’t afford its usual shows, and performers are a little antsy about returning to the show road, anyway, Patton said.

“The promoters and the producers are all concerned,” Patton said. “They’re not going to put a bunch of people on a bus and travel them all over the country.”

The facility instead is looking at coming back in August with a few one-man show performances, Patton said.

Until it reopens, The Grand, in tradition of historic theaters, is keeping on a “ghost light” to remember past performances and stay ready for a future audience, Patton said.


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Trump declares churches 'essential,' calls on them to reopen

WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump on Friday labeled churches and other houses of worship as “essential” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.

“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now — for this weekend,” Trump said at a press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn’t answer a theoretical question.

Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to reverse an economic free fall playing out months before he faces reelection. White evangelical Christians have been among the president’s most loyal supporters, and the White House has been careful to attend to their concerns throughout the crisis.

Following Trump’s announcement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.

Public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged Americans to remain 6 feet away from others when possible. Some parts of the country remain under some version of remain-at-home orders.

In-person religious services have been vectors for transmission of the virus. A person who attended a Mother’s Day service at a church in Northern California that defied the governor’s closure orders later tested positive, exposing more than 180 churchgoers. And a choir practice at a church in Washington state was labeled by the CDC as an early “superspreading” event.

But Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and said he was “identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services.”

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, he said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united,” he added.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should be in touch with local health departments and can take steps to mitigate risks, including making sure those who are at high risk of severe complications remain protected.

“There’s a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to an asymptomatic,” she said.

Churches around the country have filed legal challenges opposing virus closures. In Minnesota, after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz this week declined to lift restrictions on churches, Roman Catholic and some Lutheran leaders said they would defy his ban and resume worship services. They called the restrictions unconstitutional and unfair because restaurants, malls and bars were allowed limited reopening.

Some hailed the president’s move, including Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative First Liberty Institute.

“The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking,” he said in a statement. “Americans are going to malls and restaurants. They need to be able to go to their houses of worship.”

But Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said it was “completely irresponsible” for Trump to call for a mass reopening of houses of worship.

“Faith is essential and community is necessary; however, neither requires endangering the people who seek to participate in them,” he said. “The virus does not discriminate between types of gatherings, and neither should the president.”

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, made clear that churches and other houses of worship will not resume in-person services in her state until at least next weekend and said she was skeptical Trump had the authority to impose such a requirement.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said he would review the federal guidance, while maintaining a decision rests with him.

“Obviously we’d love to get to the point where we can get those open, but we’ll look at the guidance documents and try to make some decisions rather quickly, depending on what it might say,” he said. “It’s the governor’s decision, of course.”

The CDC more than a month ago sent the Trump administration documents the agency had drafted outlining specific steps various kinds of organizations, including houses of worship, could follow as they worked to reopen safely. But the White House was concerned the recommendations were too specific and could give the impression the administration was interfering in church operations.

The guidance posted Friday contains most of the same advice as the draft guidance. It calls for the use of face coverings and recommends keeping worshippers 6 feet from one another and cutting down on singing, which can spread aerosolized drops that carry the virus.

But there are some differences.

The draft guidance discussed reopening in steps. A first phase would have limited gatherings to video streaming and drive-in services. Later phases allow in-person gatherings of limited size and only when social distancing precautions could be followed. The new guidance has no discussion of such phases.

Another difference: The draft guidance said everyone who attends a service should wear a face covering, while the new guidance says masks should be used when social distancing cannot be maintained.


News
Coming Wednesday

Christopher Taylor shares his story of survival after battling COVID-19 for 51 days in a local hospital.


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To go out or not to go out — that is the question

When Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order announcing the second phase of a plan to open more businesses and activities in Texas, his words were met with mixed emotions across Galveston County.

Some Galveston County residents are eager for a return to “normal” and fear the response to COVID-19 has inflicted worse harm on the economy than the virus has on the populous. But others fear what Texas’ reopening economy might mean for their health and that of their loved ones.

Factors driving such differences in opinion are complicated and go far deeper than partisan politics, economists and experts in human behavior say.

“One reason why there’s this confusion and debate about going out or not going out and how it relates to the economy is that normally we have a list of options,” said Steve Cotton, an associate professor of economics at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. “Some of those options are good while some are bad. Right now, we have a list of options and they’re all different flavors of bad.’”

When people stay home and stop shopping and spending money, it’s bad for the economy; but everyone getting sick is bad for the economy, too, Cotton said.

“We get differences in people wanting to go out, or not, primarily because they have wildly different private benefits,” Cotton said. “If you have a preexisting medical condition or are older or have people in your life you care about who are vulnerable, your private costs are higher. If you’re healthy and single and don’t have much contact with others, maybe your private costs are lower.

“But even people with the same private costs can reach a different conclusion through wildly different estimates of the social benefits.”

Hitchcock resident Teri Gibson, 44, worries more about the toll pandemic fear is taking on the economy than the virus itself, she said.

“I personally think the decision to reopen businesses is a good thing,” Gibson said. “We need to stimulate the economy and get these fuel prices to rise.”

Gibson, a secretary, has been working from home since the shutdown began and has visited a few local restaurants to help stimulate the economy, she said. But because she doesn’t like wearing a mask, she’ll wait to return to hair and nail salons, she said.

“I feel very safe on how the restaurants I’ve gone to are handling things,” Gibson said. “I know my stance isn’t a popular one on social distancing, but I robbed myself of so many weeks of happiness when all this mess started and so regret it now.

“I’m not being reckless by any means. I’m going to spend time with my family and enjoy life to the fullest.”

Government-enforced social distancing measures have greatly restricted and closed some businesses, but fear of the virus is the bigger threat, Cotton said.

“Enforcing social distancing isn’t the primary cause of the economic damage — the virus is,” Cotton said. “Even if there weren’t legal requirements to shut down, a lot of people are going to stay in anyway. Countries that have ‘stayed open’ have had drops in economic activity on a scale similar to that of countries that have ‘remained closed.”

‘PEACEFUL PANDEMIC’

Some residents in the county will miss some aspects of the COVID-19 stay-at-home measures.

A survey released this week reports 1 in 3 Texans admit they’ll miss the changes made during the COVID-19 lockdown, with 45 percent reporting being grateful for the opportunity to spend more time with their partner, or family, according to the survey conducted by EverydayCarry.com.

After retiring from the Galveston Independent School District, Galveston resident Gwen Jessel-Lisbony, 68, is all for reopening — but with guidelines, she said.

“I’m the type of person that observes a situation and makes choices on how I will proceed — I don’t live in fear,” Jessel-Lisbony said. “I’ve always practiced good hygiene and know that is what my husband and I need to continue to do.”

Jessel-Lisbony said she and her husband have gotten closer and she predicts life will be back in the full swing by June 1, she said.

“I know our days are numbered on this Earth,” Jessel-Lisbony said. “I’m making good choices with the guidelines given to us. In some ways, I’ve enjoyed this slower pace of life. We’ve taken long golf cart rides all over the island to enjoy nature and have enjoyed fires in our fire pit, too.

“I have enjoyed the sweet fragrance of our roses and plumeria,” she said. “Life has been peaceful because of a pandemic.”

AS LONG AS IT TAKES

Raymond Bryant, 46, of Texas City, believes the virus hasn’t gone anywhere and nothing has stopped the spread of COVID-19 and everyone should remain cautious, he said.

“Ever since the first phase of the plan was released, the number of cases has increased and that’s terrifying to me,” Bryant said. “Every day, I see people out here not practicing social distancing or wearing face masks. This disease is serious and deadly.

“Personally, I’m taking every precaution to protect myself.”

A commodity relocation specialist for Delta Chemical Services in Deer Park, Bryant is extra careful in the workplace and will wait as long as it takes before he goes out for recreational purposes, he said. Now, he goes only to work and the grocery store.

“I’ll have to see the number of cases drop significantly before I’ll feel comfortable again,” Bryant said. “I know the economy is hurting and people need to get back to work, but is it worth your health or, even worse, your life? My main concern is staying healthy and COVID-19 free.

“Once all of this passes, America will bounce back,” he said. “It’s still just too soon for me.”

AVAILABILITY BIAS

Several psychological reasons might explain why some people aren’t ready to venture out yet, according to Crystal Reeck, an assistant professor of marketing and supply chain management at the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Reeck, who specializes on how emotions influence choices, believes the first reason might have to do with the availability bias, which is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.

“When people consider venturing out now that restrictions have eased, they might recall recent instances of other people becoming sick or dying,” Reeck said. “These readily available mental images of people suffering may make them more cautious about returning to their normal activities.

Another reason has to do with anxiety, Reeck said.

“When people feel anxious, they’re often less likely to take risks,” Reeck said. “Given the high levels of anxiety among many people regarding the pandemic, they may be hesitant to change their shelter-in-place routine and reengage in behaviors that might carry a risk of infection.”

NO EASY ANSWERS

Like Bryant, La Marque resident and teacher Amber Ferguson, 33, worries the economy is reopening too soon, she said.

But Ferguson is willing to venture back out after the current plan is in place and if case numbers stay low.

“I do understand that the reopening of businesses and the economy is important for the nation, however, I think that it’s still too soon at this time,” Ferguson said. “I feel that there’s no easy answer during this pandemic, but it’s my hope and wish that the decision-makers could place a little more emphasis on human life over business and the economy.”

There are no right answers yet, either, Cotton said.

“What I really hope to get across is that nobody on either side of this debate is just flat wrong given the information we have now,” Cotton said.

“With the benefit of hindsight, we may eventually be able to look back and say that one side or the other had the right of it. But with all the uncertainty, rational, logical and informed people can reach justifiably different conclusions on how they should behave personally and how government should involve themselves in people’s private decisions.”


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Galveston bar owners say they'll defy state reopening limits

GALVESTON

Operators of a tavern open for weeks despite state orders meant to close bars during the coronavirus pandemic said Friday they wouldn’t abide by state-mandated social distancing guidelines other Texas bars are expected to follow when they reopen this weekend.

Sharky’s Tavern, 504 25th St., operated at full capacity Thursday night, and owners intended to do so Friday and for the foreseeable future, said Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney representing the bar in a lawsuit challenging the city’s authority to enforce emergency orders issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Sharky’s was open at full capacity last night,” Woodfill said.

As part of a new round of reopening, Abbott this week said bars could open provided operators limited the number of people inside to 25 percent of their building’s capacity.

Restaurant dining rooms Friday were allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity under Abbott’s order.

Sharky’s would not follow those guidelines, Woodfill said Friday.

“There’s going to be another battle on this whole 25 percent deal,” Woodfill said.

Sharky’s Tavern opened in 2018. It is owned by Holly Landry and John David Robertson, a candidate for the Galveston City Council. Although the business serves wood-fired pizza, it’s classified as a bar by Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and displays a sign that indicates more than 51 percent of its sales come from alcohol.

After initially closing during a statewide shutdown of bars and restaurants in March, Sharky’s opened May 1, while most other bars in Galveston remained closed to conform with coronavirus closure orders Abbott has issued over the past two months.

The Galveston Police Department and Galveston City Marshal’s office have told the bar to close on four occasions since May 1, according to city officials. The city has not fined the business or arrested anyone in connection with its opening but has reported the business to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

RESTRAINING ORDER SOUGHT

Landry sued the city Wednesday and accused officials, including Mayor Jim Yarbrough, of illegally attempting to close the bar. The lawsuit argues that Abbott’s orders don’t explicitly close bars and that the city’s actions actually violate the governor’s written orders.

The lawsuit sought damages and a restraining order against the city to keep it from closing the business.

A hearing about the restraining order was held Thursday in Galveston’s 212th Judicial District Court.

District Court Judge Patricia Grady didn’t issue a restraining order, although Woodfill and city officials gave differing explanations about what happened.

Woodfill said no restraining order was needed because city officials agreed it wouldn’t try to force the bar’s closure.

“I came down here to make sure they didn’t shut her down, and they’ve agreed not to shut her down,” Woodfill said. “They’re obviously taking the position she’s not breaking the law if they are not going to shut her down. So my client was open all night last night at full capacity.”

City Attorney Don Glywasky said the order was unnecessary because the executive order Sharky’s had challenged was superseded by new orders that went into effect Friday.

The city, however, said it would leave enforcement of the state’s rules to the state alcohol commission.

In a notice posted on the commission’s website, the agency warned bars and restaurants that don’t follow Abbott’s rules could lose their licenses for up to 60 days.

“TABC has the authority to suspend any license that poses an immediate threat or danger to public safety,” the agency said.