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.

Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; keri.heath@galvnews.com or on Twitter @HeathKeri.

Matt DeGrood: 409-683-5230; matt.degrood@galvnews.com.

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(2) comments

Susan Fennewald

Does anyone know how a bar's capacity is determined? Is it the number of seats? the Fire Marshall maximum number? If every bar patron had to be seated at a table and all tables were 6 ft apart - then bars might not be a problem. But if people are just crowded in, and standing around drinking - then that is more likely to be a problem.

Carlos Ponce

Ask a musician. They go from bar to bar.[wink]

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