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.