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A month after opening, bars must shut down, restaurants reduce dine-in capacity

GALVESTON COUNTY

Now they’re open. Now they’re closed.

Across Galveston County, bar owners and workers who awoke Friday expecting they’d go to work instead faced another shutdown.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced the closure of bars and a reduction of restaurant capacity to 50 percent from 75 percent Friday because of an increase of coronavirus cases in Texas.

The blow comes only a month after bars reopened and as coronavirus cases continue to rise across Texas and in Galveston County. Although local business owners agree that something needs to be done to slow the increase in cases, many are frustrated that only bars have to shut down while other businesses are allowed to remain open.

Hugh Marney woke up to a call from his boss about the closures, he said. Marney manages Murphy’s Pub, 213 22nd St., Molly’s Pub & Old Cellar Bar, 2013 Postoffice St., and O’Malley’s Stage Door, 2022 Postoffice St. in Galveston’s downtown.

The closure wasn’t surprising to him because of the rising numbers of infections across the state, Marney said.

“We are very glad and very grateful that we did have the month open that we did have,” Marney said. “It definitely helped our budget. It makes it possible to potentially weather another shutdown.”

It means employees will be out of work and might need to look for other part-time jobs, he said.

“They all know how to file for unemployment at this point,” Marney said.

That’s what employees at Island Pier Club, 1702 Ave. O, will do, General Manager Sarah Thomas said.

Thomas thought bars would have to reduce capacity, but she was surprised by the total shutdown, she said, adding that she finds it discouraging that bars have to bear the brunt of the shutdown, she said.

“Honestly, I don’t know what to say,” Thomas said. “I understand how bad it is right now. At the same time, the whole point of the bar is to get together with your friends and meet new people.

In the meantime, Island Pier Club and its sister bar, Albatross, 815 21st St., are going to try to sell to-go drinks, she said.

Reached for comment Friday afternoon, Regina Howerton, the owner of O’Brian’s Ice House, 420 state Highway 3, in League City had a note of exhaustion in her voice.

“We were starting to do well again this whole month and now here we go again,” she said. “We’re having to shut down.”

The last few months have been difficult for Howerton and her five employees, she said. After the initial March shutdown, Howerton spent her time applying for the various federal loans but was rejected for several of them.

And those that didn’t reject her outright had a complicated application process, she said.

“I don’t mind shutting down, but if you’re going to do that, then please help me,” she said.

Howerton planned a meeting Friday afternoon with her employees to discuss possible options, she said.

Howerton had heard rumors that some bars in Galveston County had continued to operate informal speakeasys during the previous shutdown, but she kept O’Brian’s firmly closed the whole time, she said.

And she plans to follow the governor’s guidance again this time, although it will hurt her business severely, she said.

“We’ll follow the guidelines,” she said. “Whatever they said to do, we’ll follow. But if I’m closed down, then I’m staying closed down. They need to make sure everyone is shut down.”

BAR CROWDS

The first round of closures began mid-March as cases of COVID-19 began to sweep through Texas. Bars were some of the last businesses to get the green light to reopen.

In the past couple of weeks, the state has seen a resurgence of cases, particularly among young people, as many dropped social distancing practices and declined to wear masks. Abbott implored Texans earlier this week to follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks.

He pointed the finger at bar crowds Friday for their role in spreading the virus.

“We want this to be as limited in duration as possible,” Abbott said in a statement. “However, we can only slow the spread if everyone in Texas does their part.”

Before Abbott’s announcement, bars were operating at 50 percent and restaurants at 75 percent capacity.

But bars aren’t the main culprit, said James Clark, president of the Galveston Restaurant Association and director of operations and managing partner at Mosquito Cafe, 628 14th St.

“I think it’s really unfair for him to put it on bars,” Clark said.

The problem is that people are getting out and going everywhere — not just bars — without masks, he said, adding that bars in Galveston have largely been complying with hygiene and social distancing guidelines.

RESTAURANTS REDUCED

The change is not as big a deal for restaurants, which have to reduce from 75 percent to 50 percent capacity, Clark said.

At the Mosquito Cafe, capacity hasn’t expanded beyond 25 percent and most restaurants won’t be able to maintain 6 feet between tables if they go to 75 percent capacity anyway, he said.

The larger challenge is that revenues have started to slip again as cases rise and people stay home, he said.

Riondo’s Ristorante, 2328 Strand St., saw a dip in sales last week, too, co-owner Don McClaugherty said.

The capacity reduction isn’t a huge hit for the restaurant, but it’s not fair to bars, McClaugherty said.

“I think something needs to happen, but it’s unfair to pick on the small businesses,” he said.

McClaugherty thinks there should be restrictions applied to stores as well, he said.

Chung Hui, general manager of King’s BierHaus in League City, 828 FM 646, told The Daily News that the business wouldn’t close because it’s a restaurant, but that the pandemic is hurting business badly.

“We’ve been hurting, but we’re going to do what’s right,” he said.

Restaurant employees had been seating tables 6 feet apart and limiting party numbers to no more than 10 people even before the order came out Friday, he said.

“We’ve had some parties of 16 come in, and we’ve told them we can’t do that,” he said.

Hui had even required his entire staff to get tested for the coronavirus before coming into work because he’d been worried about the recent increase in cases, he said.

“We did close for a day to do a deep cleaning and make sure everything is good,” he said. “Just to be on the safe side.”

After learning about the governor’s order, Hui and his staff reached out to everyone who booked tables for the weekend and canceled them to allow more time to work out what the plan will be moving forward, Hui said.

“I know a lot of restaurants haven’t been following the rules, and that’s just not right,” he said. “I’ve been seeing places where people are lined up shoulder to shoulder.”

Patrons have been upset about some of the requirements, but restaurants must make the necessary decisions to protect people, Hui said.

LOCAL RESPONSE

League City Mayor Pat Hallisey on Friday praised the governor’s order.

“Thank you, governor,” he said. “Your leadership is appreciated, in closing bars. That’s been one of the fastest-growing problems. The numbers on COVID-19 have been astronomical. And I appreciate him taking the lead. We can debate this until the cows come home, but I think it’s good coming from him.”

Hallisey had been weighing several options to stem the increase of coronavirus cases in League City on Thursday evening and Friday, including a possible mask order that nearby cities such as Galveston and Dickinson have instituted.

But after the governor’s order, the pressure locally is somewhat eased, Hallisey said.

Galveston instituted a mask order Monday that requires businesses to mandate face coverings, a rule the Galveston City Council later extended through September.

Abbott’s decision is a good move, Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.

“We’ve got to do something to get a grip on this stuff,” Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough hopes the order sends a message to visitors to exercise more caution, he said.

Since beaches reopened May 1, the city has been inundated with visitors, especially from the Houston area, coming to the island, often leading to crowding and traffic issues.

Abbott ordered beaches open in late April after Galveston had closed the shores for about a month, and Yarbrough doesn’t anticipate the state will walk that back, he said.


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Misinformation, lax compliance derailed reopening in Galveston County, official says

GALVESTON

Not so long ago, Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s local health authority, would have been shocked to see 100 cases of the coronavirus announced in a day, he said.

But now, we might soon enter a time when the county sees 400 cases a day, Keiser said.

The reason for the quick rise in coronavirus cases in Galveston County is a lack of personal responsibility and a state reopening that didn’t go quite according to plan, Keiser said.

“I think that perhaps we could have slowed down the opening a little more,” he said. “I think depending on where you were, there were mixed messages.”

Some others, however, argue statistics don’t support the argument that tighter lockdowns produced better results, but they clearly did produce higher unemployment.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that all bars were to close by noon Friday and all restaurants must reduce capacity to 50 percent by Monday, undoing a gradual reopening of the state’s economy that began May 1.

Abbott in his order cited a positivity rate of more than 10 percent in people tested for the coronavirus as his motivation for tightening restrictions meant to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The Galveston County Health District reported 252 new COVID-19 diagnoses Friday afternoon, a new single-day high, topping the previous high of 226 on Wednesday.

The sharp rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Texas, combined with the new restrictions on businesses, has turned handling of the pandemic into something of a political football.

Some health professionals, for instance, declined to comment about what reopening should have looked like, citing concern about political fallout from their comments.

And that environment contributed to fewer and fewer residents taking social distancing and other health measures seriously, Keiser said.

“There’s been a lot of confusion about what’s permissible, what’s not permissible,” Keiser said. “When the public sees the politicians and the leadership disagree, they realize there’s no negative consequences to their actions.”

Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May unveiled a list of guidelines to help states prepare for reopening the economy.

Those guidelines, for instance, recommended that states only begin the first phase of reopening when officials see a downward trajectory of documented cases over a 14-day period, records show.

The state has performed well in some regards, Kesier said.

Contact tracing, for instance, hasn’t been a problem, he said.

“We’ve been working very hard on getting tracing up and running,” he said.

A lack of knowledge about the rules has been the largest issue, Keiser said.

Some economic experts, however, argue that the initial coronavirus shutdowns were overly harsh, and ineffective at stopping the spread.

“I will say that many people made dire predictions that if we do not have lockdowns, we will necessarily have bad outcomes,” said Edward Peter Stringham, president of the American Institute for Economic Research. “They were criticizing the states that did not have lockdowns. But the data should lead us to question those strong statements.”

Stringham recently authored an article for the institute, arguing against the benefits of the lockdowns.

Stringham cited data showing that states that didn’t lockdown, such as South Dakota, Utah, Arkansas and Iowa, among others, had a comparatively lower unemployment rate than those that did lock down, 7.8 percent versus 13.2 percent.

And locked down states have a death rate about four times higher than those that didn’t, Stringham argues.

But Stringham also conceded that the statistics he lays out could have different mitigating factors, such as population density of affected states.

Ultimately, the most telling statistic moving forward, however, will look at available intensive care beds, Stringham said.

That’s an attitude Keiser pushed back against Friday.

“We’ve been very fortunate with our death rate,” he said. “I think there are some people who until we start to see the death count rising won’t take it seriously, and that’s unfortunate.”

“Some states might be in a position now that they must take some action to stem the spread of the virus,” Stringham said.

Calls for more stringent measures are not supported by the numbers, however, he said.

“Much of the public dialogue is not based in science,” Stringham said.


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Some states revert to restrictions as virus cases surge

AUSTIN

Texas and Florida reversed course and clamped down on bars again Friday in the nation’s largest retreat yet as the daily number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the United States surged to an all-time high of 40,000.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all bars closed, while Florida banned alcohol at such establishments. The two states joined the small but growing list of those that are either backtracking or putting any further reopenings of their economies on hold because of a comeback by the virus, mostly in the South and West.

Health experts have said a disturbingly large number of cases are being seen among young people who are going out again, often without wearing masks or observing other social distancing rules.

“It is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said.

Abbott had pursued up to now one of the most aggressive reopening schedules of any governor. The Republican not only resisted calls to order masks be worn but also refused until last week to let local governments take such measures.

“The doctors told us at the time, and told anyone who would listen, this will be a disaster. And it has been,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who is the county’s top official. “Once again, the governor is slow to act. He is now being forced to do the things that we’ve been demanding that he do for the last month and a half.”

Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street again over the surging case numbers. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 730 points, or nearly 3 percent.

Texas reported more than 17,000 new cases in the past three days, with a record high of nearly 6,000 on Thursday. The second-largest state also sets records daily for hospitalizations, surpassing 5,000 coronavirus patients for the first time Friday.

In Florida, under Gov. Ron DeSantis, the agency that regulates bars acted after the daily number of new confirmed cases neared 9,000, almost doubling the record set just two days earlier.

Colleen Corbett, a 30-year-old bartender at two places in Tampa, said that she was disappointed and worried about being unemployed again but that the restrictions are the right move. Most customers were not wearing masks, she said.

“It was like they forgot there was a pandemic or just stopped caring,” Corbett said.

A number of the hardest-hit states, including Arizona and Arkansas, have Republican governors who have resisted mask-wearing requirements.

The White House coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, held its first briefing in nearly two months, and Pence gave assurances that the United States is “in a much better place” than it was two months ago.

He said the country has more medical supplies on hand, a smaller share of patients are being hospitalized, and deaths are much lower than they were in the spring.

The count of new confirmed infections, provided by Johns Hopkins University, eclipsed the previous high of 36,400, set on April 24, during one of the deadliest stretches. Newly reported cases per day have risen on average about 60 percent over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis.

While the rise partly reflects expanded testing, experts said there is ample evidence the scourge is making a comeback, including rising deaths and hospitalizations in parts of the country and higher percentages of tests coming back positive for the virus.

At the task force briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, urged people to mind their responsibility to others: “A risk for you is not just isolated to you.”

Deaths from the coronavirus in the United States are running at about 600 per day, down from a peak of around 2,200 in mid-April. Some experts have expressed doubt that deaths will return to that level, because of advances in treatment and prevention and because younger adults are more likely than older ones to survive.

The virus is blamed for about 125,000 deaths and nearly 2.5 million confirmed infections nationwide, by Johns Hopkins’ count. But health officials believe the true number of infections is about 10 times higher. Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives.

Louisiana reported its second one-day spike of more than 1,300 cases his week. The increasing numbers led Gov. John Bel Edwards this week to suspend further easing of restrictions. Gov. Doug Ducey did the same in Arizona, where cases are topping 3,000 a day and 85 percent of hospital beds are occupied.

For the second time in a week, Tennessee reported its biggest one-day jump in confirmed infections, with more than 1,400, but Gov. Bill Lee has been reluctant to reinstate restrictions or call for a mask mandate.

In Texas, Abbott also scaled back restaurant capacity, shut down rafting operations and said any outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people will need approval from local officials.

DeSantis has been lifting restrictions more slowly than a task force recommended but has allowed theme parks to reopen, encouraged professional sports to come to Florida and pushed for the GOP convention to be held in the Sunshine State.

In a reversal of fortune, New York said it is offering equipment and other help to Arizona, Texas and Florida, noting that other states came to its aid when it was in the throes of the deadliest outbreak in the nation this spring.

“We will never forget that graciousness, and we will repay it any way we can,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Globally, another record daily increase in India pushed the caseload in the world’s second most populous nation toward half a million. And other countries with big populations like Indonesia, Pakistan and Mexico grappled with large numbers of infections and strained health care systems.


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Coast Monthly will be in Tuesday's edition

The July issue of Coast Monthly arrived on the loading dock today and will be delivered to subscribers in the Tuesday edition of The Daily News.

Thank you for your patience and enjoy.

— Laura Elder, editor


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Experts implore people to wear masks to reduce virus spread

GALVESTON COUNTY

Two Galveston County cities this week enacted rules requiring businesses to mandate masks for their customers and employees, a move that’s stoked debate about whether masks work.

But despite early confusion, health experts agree people should wear masks in places where they can’t keep at least 6 feet apart to protect others from potential infection by the coronavirus.

Galveston and Dickinson implemented rules this week mandating businesses to require masks for customers and employees. Galveston’s order became effective Tuesday, while Dickinson customers will need to mask up starting Sunday.

Masks do help prevent spread of the coronavirus, said Dr. Philip Keiser, the top health official for the Galveston County Health District.

“The reason why we’re asking the public to wear masks isn’t because the mask is going to protect them, it’s going to protect the people around me,” Keiser said.

There’s much lingering confusion on masks because there were mixed messages, Keiser said.

Just how effective masks can be are still in question for some, like Galveston resident Brett Von Blon.

“I’m just kind of wishy-washy on them,” Von Blon said.

Von Blon always wears a mask when he’s asked to or when he’s around a crowd, though he generally avoids crowds now, he said.

If he’s out in the open air, he won’t wear one, he said.

“I just don’t know how effective they are, but I don’t know that they’re not,” Von Blon said.

Galveston resident Lorraine Manuel also wears masks if shops require them and thinks they’re a good idea in close proximity, but she’d rather practice social distancing inside businesses, she said.

“I just stand back and wait,” Manuel said. “It’s personal responsibility to not crowd and do that.”

Manuel doesn’t like the idea of requiring stores to mandate masks because she thinks it will hurt business, she said.

There are different kinds of masks, said Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer for the University of Texas System.

Health care workers use N95 masks, which have to be sealed to a person’s face, he said.

“Those type of masks protect you from anything,” Lakey said. “They need to be reserved for the hospitals.”

The push for widespread use of face coverings came when health care workers realized people could be shedding the virus without symptoms, Lakey said.

The virus is spread through respiratory droplets, which masks keep from flying out toward other people, Lakey said.

“The primary role of these masks is to protect other people from getting infected from the respiratory droplets,” Lakey said.

Although people should wash their masks, they shouldn’t worry about catching the virus from a mask, Lakey said.

“That’s not going to be the major way this is transmitted,” Lakey said.

Masks probably offer some level of protection to the wearer, but the point is protect others, said Dr. Richard Lampe, professor of pediatric infectious disease at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

“The big thing is the asymptomatic carriers,” Lampe said, referring to people who are infected but have no symptoms of illness. “It prevents them from spreading it.”

But people have to wear the mask correctly and put it over their nose and mouth, he said.

There’s not a great deal of data or studies evaluating the cloth masks that people have been using, but they’re going to be better than nothing, said Dr. Jason McKnight, a family medicine physician at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine.

McKnight wears a surgical mask at work, but he wears a cloth mask at the grocery store, he said.

Masks have an added benefit of preventing people from touching their faces, McKnight said.

The only people who shouldn’t wear masks are small children — who breathe differently than adults — or people who can’t remove their masks by themselves, which can cause safety issues, McKnight said.

People who have such severe respiratory issues that they can’t wear a mask, should probably stay at home, he said.

“You probably should not be leaving your house to begin with,” McKnight said.

It’s usually not worth it for children to wear masks because it can be a health concern to the child and rates of spread from children are low, Lampe said.

Keiser agrees with rules requiring businesses to mandate masks for customers and employees, like those enacted by Galveston and Dickinson, he said.

“If every single one of them was wearing a mask, the chance of spread from contact was very very low,” Keiser said.

When it comes to the outdoors, when to where a mask depends on the situation, Keiser said.

“When I ride my bike, I don’t wear a mask,” Keiser said.

If people can isolate themselves, it’s all right to forgo the mask, but if they’re going to be in any kind of crowd, they should wear a mask, he said.

Although it’d be great if mask wearing could cut out transmission of the virus, the real point is to slow down the spread, McKnight said.

“The ultimate goal would be to eliminate spread, but the more realistic goal is that you slow and minimize transmission,” McKnight said.


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As COVID urgency grows, cities slow to issue mask mandates

DICKINSON

Friday morning was the last straw for Dickinson Mayor Julie Masters.

Hours after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a new series of shutdowns because of the coronavirus, Masters issued an emergency order, requiring Dickinson business operators to require their staff and customers to wear face masks indoors.

In doing so, Dickinson became the second city in Galveston County to issue a mask order and back it up with potential fines for businesses that don’t enforce the city’s rule.

“It’s just about the increase we’ve seen and public safety,” Masters said. “I was hoping that the businesses would self-police themselves and require the things, but apparently that’s not happening.”

Dickinson’s mandatory mask order goes into effect Sunday. Businesses that don’t create and enforce a masking policy could be fined $1,000 for every unmasked person inside their premises, according to the policy.

The city of Galveston was the first in the county to require people to wear masks inside businesses. Mayor Jim Yarbrough’s order went into effect Tuesday and on Thursday was ratified and extended into September by the Galveston City Council.

Masters’ order will expire after seven days if it’s not ratified by the Dickinson City Council next week, she said.

In making an official order, Masters broke away from most other leaders in the county — who have stuck with appealing to their citizens’ consciences to get them to wear masks, without threatening to penalize business operators.

ELSEWHERE

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry announced June 21 he would not issue a face mask order and has not publicly addressed the issue since. Henry’s office confirmed Friday he did not intend to issue a countywide mask order.

League City Mayor Pat Hallisey on Friday morning said he had been considering what kind of new city rules he could implement.

He noted, however, he could not make the kind of short-term emergency rules that Yarbrough and Masters had called because League City, the county’s most populated city and the one with the most overall cases, is no longer under an official disaster declaration.

The League City Council declined to extend the city’s COVID-related disaster declaration in April, meaning any new mandated precautions would require the city council to vote for new rules, Hallisey said.

Other leaders said they were keeping with a strategy of asking for mask compliance while acknowledging that they are planning what to do in case they need to make the recommendation stronger.

Last Saturday, La Marque Mayor Bobby Hocking issued a proclamation asking people to wear face coverings in public places. La Marque’s proclamation, unlike Galveston’s, did not include the potential of fines for businesses or individuals.

Even without an order, more people appear to wear masks in the city, City Manager Charles “Tink” Jackson said. There is some worry that if the city upgrades its mask proclamation to a mask order, it will lead to more conflict, fights and disagreements rather than compliance, Jackson said.

“You can’t say or do anything today without causing a protest,” Jackson said. “We have become so contentious as a society, you can’t do anything without someone, somewhere having a fit about it. We’re kind of trying not to be part of the turmoil.”

After issuing the proclamation, the city’s code enforcement officers hand-delivered copies of it to more than 300 businesses, Jackson said. The city also supplied businesses with a stater pack of masks for staff and customers, Jackson said.

Still, the city has drafted versions of a mandatory order that could be issued if the local situation changes.

‘THIS IS A SCARY DEAL’

In Texas City, Mayor Matt Doyle on Thursday broadcast a video appeal to residents asking them to take the last increase in COVID-19 cases seriously. Throughout the pandemic, Texas City has had among the most cases per capita in Galveston County. From June 19 to June 25, 124 new cases were reported in the city, bringing the citywide total to 471 people.

In April and May, that status was because of a high number of cases in Texas City nursing homes, Doyle said. But that is not the case now.

Since the beginning of May, the reported number of COVID-19 cases at the city’s long-term care facilities — in older county residents — has remained mostly unchanged, while the rise in cases in younger age groups has risen sharply.

After posting his warning video, one woman accused Doyle of trying to scare people about the virus.

His response?

“Yes ma’am, we are,” Doyle said. “Because this is a scary deal. We’ll end up passing an ordinance if we have to, if people don’t comply.”

Shortly after signing Dickinson’s order, Masters said she called Hallisey and Doyle and urged them to make stricter rules in their cities — because although people will be required to wear masks inside Dickinson, they still won’t be when they leave the city to shop or eat or work.

“I need your help,” Masters said she told her fellow mayors. “Most of my citizens shop in Texas City and League City. They go to the restaurants there. They have so much more retail opportunities than we do. That’s what's hard if they’re not requiring it. I have a lot more of my citizens going into their communities than they have coming into mine.”