A1 A1
Free
editor's pick centerpiece featured
Galveston bar opens, prompting complaints, calls and lawsuits

GALVESTON

Sharky’s Tavern is a bar and has been open for three weeks.

That fact seemed to violate executive orders Gov. Greg Abbott issued in March, which ostensibly shut down whole sectors of the Texas economy, including bars, and ordered Texans not to gather in groups larger than 10.

Abbott himself seemed to think he had closed bars and taverns in the state in efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In announcing he was reopening parts of the Texas economy, he has spoken about waiting to reopen bar doors.

It was only this week that Abbott announced a rollback of rules on bars, saying they could reopen at 25 percent capacity on Friday.

Since May 1, the city of Galveston has four times told Sharky’s, 504 25th St., to stay closed.

And, still, the bar is open.

The reasons behind Sharky’s continued operations involves written rules, spoken interpretations of those rules, suspicions of political favoritism, emails, pizza ovens and, as of Wednesday, a lawsuit against the city.

Sharky’s owners and defenders say the reasoning behind opening is simple: Although many people, including the governor, appear to believe bars are supposed to be closed, the actual written orders forming the base of those beliefs are too ambiguous to enforce.

“You can come get a beer,” said John David Robertson, who owns the bar with his wife, Holly Landry.

On May 5, days after Texas began opening restaurant dining rooms at limited capacity for the first time since the middle of March, Abbott announced he was prepared to open some other types of businesses, including gyms and barbershops.

But Abbott wasn’t prepared to reopen bars, which he said needed tighter rules and more consideration before being allowed to open.

Bars are “the type of setting that promotes the transmission of infectious diseases,” Abbott said.

The delay annoyed some local bar operators, who said the state’s definition of what’s a bar and what’s a restaurant is arbitrary.

That’s part of the reason Sharky’s, which is a bar under the state’s standards, opened its doors on May 1, Robertson said.

“We sell food,” Robertson said. “We sell pizza, and we sell a lot of it. We’re known for our pizza and our live music.”

Robertson, who’s running for a spot on the Galveston City Council, said he was hesitant to talk about Sharky’s opening because he didn’t want it “blown out of proportion.”

But the issue has drawn the attention of the city and other local business owners.

Since May 1, the city of Galveston has sent the police department or the city marshal’s office to Sharky’s Tavern four times, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

The officers were dispatched after complaints to the city about the business being open, officials said.

Each time they went to the business, the officer and the marshal told operators the bar should be closed, Barnett said.

The owners have chosen to keep the bar open. The city has not fined Sharky’s or made any arrests because it’s open but has reported the fact that it’s open to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Barnett said.

The commission did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

STATE REP GETS INVOLVED

The most recent confrontation between Sharky’s and the city also prompted the bar owners to seek a different kind of state help.

On Saturday evening, state Rep. Mayes Middleton called Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell to request the city stop attempting to close Sharky’s. Middleton said the city was “harassing” the business.

“I reminded the city they cannot arrest someone or criminally charge someone for just operating their business at this time,” Middleton said in a text to The Daily News.

After Middleton and Maxwell spoke, Middleton sent an email to Robertson, saying he had brokered an agreement with the city.

“I talked to Brian Maxwell and got him to commit that once a bar is turned over to TABC that they will no longer attempt to enforce their city closure ordinances and leave it solely to TABC,” Middleton wrote. “So basically, the city should leave you alone.”

On Monday, Maxwell said there were no local orders closing bars and that it had always been the city’s policy to report violations of state orders to the alcohol commission, even before Middleton’s call. Maxwell called the entreaty by Middleton unusual.

“I don’t think he had any authority,” Maxwell said. “I think he was just calling on behalf of a friend.

“Sharky’s feels like they are not a bar, they are a restaurant,” Maxwell said. “We informed them that is really a TABC decision, so we notified TABC and we moved on.”

The following day, copies of Middleton’s email began circulating among local bar owners. The message prompted complaints that Sharky’s was being treated differently than other bars, which have remained closed during the pandemic precautions.

“Everybody’s hurting,” said Todd Slaughter, the owner of Rumors Beach Bar, 3102 Seawall Blvd., in Galveston. “But we’re all sitting here watching this lady thumbing her nose at the city and everything that we’re supposed to be doing all the way up to the governor, saying she’s going to just run her business.”

What businesses should be opened or closed is legally a gray area, and agencies attempting to enforce orders should think twice, Middleton said.

“If there is any question or lack of clarity at all, we must err on the side of small businesses and allow people to make a living,” Middleton said.

A LAWSUIT EMERGES

On Wednesday, the dispute entered a new stage when Holly Landry filed a lawsuit against Maxwell, Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough and Cecil “Butch” Stroud, the city marshal, claiming Abbott’s order did not actually close bars and the city’s attempts to enforce the orders was a violation of the Texas Constitution.

Abbott’s Executive Order GA-18 doesn’t say bars should close, said Jared Woodfill, the attorney representing Sharky’s. It states “people shall avoid visiting bars,” he said.

“The problem we’re having is that local officials across the state, like the mayor, the city manager in Galveston and the city marshal, are misinterpreting the order itself,” Woodfill said. “Technically, under the order, the only folks that could be cited would be the individuals that chose to go to the bar.”

Woodfill, who is the former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, said the Sharky’s lawsuit is tied to hundreds of lawsuits filed in other counties challenging the enforcement of state and local orders related to COVID-19.

Woodfill is the lawyer for a group that earlier this month sued Harris County over its order to require people to wear masks in public spaces.

In April, his law firm filed a lawsuit in Travis County over Abbott’s orders, which claimed state stay-at-home orders violated religious rights.

“It’s happening all across the state,” Woodfill said. “I think there’s just a mass misunderstanding about what the order said.”

City officials declined to comment on the lawsuit on Wednesday.

Abbott on Monday announced that all bars in Texas can begin to open at 25 percent capacity Friday. Woodfill said he believed that order was unconstitutional as well.


Free
Galveston vacation rental industry reports huge surge in demand

GALVESTON

Memorial Day weekend is shaping up to bring hundreds of overnight visitors to the island as vacation rental property operators experience a strong surge in demand.

Vacation rental companies across the island report being fully booked for the long Memorial Day weekend as out-of-towners seek an island getaway.

“We are turning away hundreds of people asking for Memorial Day reservations,” said Claire Reiswerg, co-owner of Sand ‘N Sea Properties.

Sand ‘N Sea’s more than 150 properties usually book up during Memorial Day, and the company normally has to turn away a few dozen people, Reiswerg said.

“But we’ve never seen so much demand,” she said.

Although it’s a welcome change for management companies and owners who endured more than a month of vacation rental closures because of pandemic protocols, bookings for the rest of the summer still are lagging behind last year as people hesitate to commit, industry stakeholders say.

Vacation homes managed by Ryson Real Estate & Vacation Rentals are fully booked, but the company’s condominiums are at about 70 percent occupancy, CEO Liz Overton said. The company manages about 230 properties.

Vacation rentals across the island were nearly empty through April after Mayor Jim Yarbrough ordered all short-term vacation rental and hotel guests to leave the island to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

But occupancy began dipping before Yarbrough’s orders.

Total occupancy for hotel and vacation rentals in Galveston was 46.7 percent in January, February and March compared with 51 percent last year, according to Source Strategies Inc., a San Antonio-based lodging analysis company.

Data for April and May wasn’t yet available.

Revenue for the first three months of the year was $32.1 million in 2020, about $5 million less than the $37.1 million reported in 2019, according to the data.

PLAYING CATCH-UP

Although it’s good that occupancy is picking back up, Ryson is eager to make up for lost spring bookings, Overton said.

“We’re definitely playing catch-up,” Overton said.

The pandemic closures also meant that when bookings opened back up, companies had to drop their prices to stay competitive with all the rental properties suddenly returning to the market all at once, Overton said.

Rates are starting to rise with demand, but prices aren’t what they’d normally be this time of year, Overton said.

Although the weekend is booked, reservations for later in the summer are still slow to come, said Vonda Tackett, CEO of Soar Vacation Rental Services.

Bookings are only trickling in for later in the summer as people continue to exercise caution, she said.

“It’s still an uncertain time,” Tackett said. “I don’t think they want to book too far in advance.”

But the surge in bookings bodes well for the summer, Tackett said.

It’s not surprising there’s so much demand to visit Galveston, said Mary Branum, president of the Short Term Rental Owners Association of Galveston.

“I do believe people are ready to get out,” Branum said.

The high booking rates also mean there will be a lot of people on the island this weekend — and that’s good for local businesses, Branum said.

Vacation rental owners will have to wait and see how the rest of the season plays out, especially the late summer and early fall. But Memorial Day rates are off to a good start, Branum said.


Free
AP
Ruling that would expand Texas mail-in voting put on hold

AUSTIN

A federal appeals court Wednesday quickly put on a hold a ruling that paved the way in Texas for a dramatic expansion of mail-in voting because of fears of the coronavirus.

The move by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans came less than 24 hours after a federal judge in San Antonio ruled that Texas must give all 16 million registered voters in the state the option of voting by mail during the pandemic.

A three-judge panel stopped that decision from taking effect for now while the case is reviewed. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton cheered the decision, saying that allowing everyone to vote by mail “would only lead to greater fraud and disenfrachise lawful voters.” U.S. District Judge Fred Biery said in his ruling Tuesday that there was scant evidence to support those claims and states that already allow all-mail votes have not reported significant fraud.

Voting by mail in Texas is generally limited to those 65 or older or those with a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents voting in person. Paxton has asserted that fear of getting the virus doesn’t qualify as a disability under the law.

The fight in Texas is one of several nationwide over expanding access to mail-in ballots amid the pandemic. Primary runoff elections in Texas are set for July 14.


News
This Weekend

Restaurants, shops and other businesses are opening up, but live music venues, theaters and entertainment workers are still waiting for the next step.


News
Welding sparks cause of Pelican Island tank explosion

GALVESTON

An investigation by the Galveston Fire Marshal’s Office determined sparks from a welding rig ignited an explosion and subsequent fire at an oil tank, injuring two people Tuesday at the Pelican Island Storage Terminal.

“Sparks from the welding most likely got into some vapors and caused the initial explosion,” Galveston Fire Chief Charles Olsen said.

The Galveston Fire Department was called to the scene at 3:15 p.m. and had extinguished the fire about four hours later, Olsen said.

“We had to find a way to get the foam inside the tank to suppress the vapors and cut it off,” Olsen said, referring to flame-retardant foam used to fight fires when water isn’t an option.

“We had to use ground monitors and a bunch of foam and shoot it into the hole that was made when it exploded.” he said. “It caused a rip in the roof of the container, and we had to concentrate on that.”

The foam suppressed the vapors and none of the product leaked, Olsen said.

Officials at the nearby Texas A&M University at Galveston campus said Tuesday’s explosion highlights periodic problems it has had with the tank farm.

“The proximity of the facility has been an issue,” Texas A&M University at Galveston Chief Operating Officer Col. Michael Fossum said.

“We’ve had a series of complaints filed against them for the vapors that escape their facility and have impacted us on the campus,” he said. “When they’ve got some kind of venting going on, and the wind is the right direction, it permeates some of the buildings over here.”

Texas A&M University at Galveston has filed 13 air quality complaints against the tank farm to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since July 2013, with the most recent being in September 2019, and a hearing is currently pending, spokeswoman Rebecca Watts said.

As a precaution Tuesday, Texas A&M University at Galveston issued a shelter-in-place order, which was lifted about an hour after the fire was reported.

“They’re our neighbors, and we respect the fact that they’re a business. But we have to figure out how to coexist with them,” Fossum said.

Publicly traded World Point Terminals, based in St. Louis, Missouri, owns Pelican Island Storage Terminal. The company declined comment Tuesday and couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staff was on site to oversee actions taken to mitigate any environmental impact and to conduct air monitoring in the area surrounding the tank farm, spokesman Brian McGovern said.

“During the survey, TCEQ didn’t observe any odors or detect any emissions,” McGovern said. “Additionally, the facility conducted air monitoring and was requested to conduct monitoring until the contents of the tank are transferred. Results from their monitoring activity are being shared with the TCEQ; no detections were observed.”

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesman could not yet confirm whether it will conduct an investigation but said OSHA is aware of the incident and is looking into it. In an OSHA investigation typical with this sort of incident, OSHA would first ensure worker safety, then inspect the work site and equipment and interview employees and witnesses, spokesman Juan Rodriguez said. OSHA could issue fines if violations are found, Rodriguez said.