As Restrictions In Texas Loosen, These Austin Bars Say They'll Reopen In Their Own Phases

May 22, 2020

Texas bars can reopen at 25% capacity today – just in time for Memorial Day weekend. Even with the limited number of customers, it’s a good opportunity to make back some of the money these businesses have lost after months of closures. 

But while many bars are eager to reopen, some aren't quite ready yet.

The governor set out guidelines for both bars and patrons. It’s a long checklist. There are the basics, such as social distancing, no more than six people at a table, and hand-sanitizing stations. But other requirements include blocking off the physical bar and removing stools. The idea is to serve people only at tables to avoid the natural crowding that can occur at the bar itself. 

Oh, the irony – closing a bar to open it. 

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“It’s going to be running with, basically, cocktail waitresses instead of a bar,” says Will Tanner, co-owner of Hole in the Wall, Stay Gold and The Long Play Lounge. “It really flips our dynamic.” 

Tanner says he does want to reopen, but right now the plan is to “sit it out” for about a week and see how other bars fare. Two of his bars – Hole in the Wall and Stay Gold – are music venues, as well. He says when he thinks about reopening, live music is a must. But he hasn’t received much guidance on how to do simple things like sanitize microphones. 

“The whole music piece is very important to me and finding a way forward with that, with safety in mind, is very, very, very complicated,” Tanner says. 

The bars, he says, are supposed to be a place where people come to relax and let loose. Now, with all the restrictions and anxiety surrounding COVID-19, he’s worried the laid-back atmosphere he’s worked so hard to cultivate may no longer exist. He says his staff will need to become enforcers of social distancing – policing people’s behavior – which is antithetical to the way he operates.  

Will Tanner, co-owner of Hole in the Wall, Stay Gold and The Long Play Lounge, says the conflicting information from state and local leaders have left his team confused on what is the best way to safely reopen.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

“I’ve built my career around a culture of ‘yes’ – 'Yes, you can come in. Yes, you can have a drink,'" Tanner says. “Now, all of a sudden, I’m going to have to say a lot of ‘noes,’ and that’s just not fun.” 

It’s also been hard to keep up with what is and is not allowed, Tanner says. The seemingly conflicting information from state and local leaders has left his team confused on what is the best way to safely reopen. 

For example, the governor's rules require bars to use single-use silverware and glasses. But on May 20, the Texas Restaurant Association received clarification from Abbott's office saying bars can use reusable glassware and silverware similar to restaurants. 

“It’s like we’re trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube eight hours a day, and the colors keep changing,” Tanner says. 

Mayor Steve Adler has also recommended businesses collect the contact information of everyone who visits to use for contact-tracing purposes. Tanner says he is open to the policy, but knows some patrons will be vehemently against sharing their personal information – and he won’t fight them.  

"It's like we're trying to solve a Rubik's Cube, and the colors keep changing."

“I don’t want to get into that argument,” Tanner says. “It’s not good bar room etiquette.” 

Matthew Moore, a partner and general manager of Dive Bar & Lounge, echoes these worries. 

“Most people should have no problem with that because it’s for the greater good,” he says. “But you’re always going to have people who feel it’s encroaching upon their freedoms and all that.” 

Moore is also waiting to see what other bars are doing to mitigate some of the issues he expects will arise. 

He says he has heard stories of businesses that have tried to enforce the rules, only to have people react aggressively – and that’s concerning, especially when you add alcohol into the mix. 

“There’s going to be some people who don’t like that and they’re going to take it the wrong way,” he says. “We’ll just be doing our jobs, but we’re going to look like the jerks in the situation – which is not really [something] to look forward to.” 

Moore is also not sure he can safely ensure social distancing. Under the state’s capacity rule, Dive could serve up to 25 people at a time. But the bar is so small, he’s not sure he could fit that many people and keep them 6 feet apart. He says the bar would likely have to take in less people and hire a doorman to keep things under control. 

“It’s going to be one of those things that we’re just going to have to see how it goes,” Moore says. “It’s going to be weird.” 

But the main issue, he says, is staffing. Moore will need to hire extra people to keep up with things like cleaning, sanitizing and enforcing social distancing. This only adds to the financial burden his business and many others have been facing after being forced to shut down. 

Not to mention many bar owners are still trying to convince some staff members to return to work when there’s no guarantee they’ll be making the same amounts they were before. Hole in the Wall and Dive qualified for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which keeps employees on the payroll. But Moore says they didn't get enough money from the small-business loan program.

“The bar and restaurant industry pays their employees very low because they’re working on tips,” he says. “So, when you run that report to show what your wages were for the last year, it’s going to be the small rate of $2.13 or $3.50 an hour – so that’s all we were able to get from the government.”  

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Right now, many of these employees are receiving unemployment, which includes an additional $600 weekly from the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Benefit through July 31. Tanner says he understands why some staff wouldn't want to lose out on that money — to work harder for less pay – while also putting themselves at greater risk of contracting the virus. 

“I don’t know how many of them even want to come back,” Tanner says. 

But ultimately, he says, opening for him and many on his team is less about the money and more about getting back to some sense of normalcy. “Reopening at this point, to me, is more of an exercise in optimism,” Tanner says. “But as far as business goes, 25%, especially for live music, doesn’t do it.” 

Nickel City bar manager Amanda Carto, right, goes over orders with co-owner Travis Tober on March 19. Tober says he just hopes all the work going into reopening will pay off.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

Travis Tober, co-owner of Nickel City on 11th Street, says his bar also qualified for a PPP loan and he’s working with his accountants to make sure his employees make more money than they would on unemployment.“We want everyone to come back, we understand if they don’t want to come back,” he says. “But at a certain point in time, businesses need to reopen.” 

Tober is tentatively waiting until June 1 to reopen. He says figuring out how to implement things like temperature checks at the door, QR codes for menus and no-contact payment systems is going to be a lot of work. Beyond just keeping things sanitary, Tober says, he still needs to hold true to what his customers expect from the bar. 

“I’ll be out all weekend just visiting bars and restaurants and trying to get any extra ideas,” he says. “You know, just seeing how we can do it and put our Nickel City twist on it – kinda have fun with it, I guess.” 

Tober says he’s not thrilled about the closure of the bar top because table service is “not Nickel City’s vibe.” But he’s trying to come up with creative ways to work around it. For example, he’s thinking of providing a card with a red and green side signaling when a customer does and does not want to be served, similar to a Brazilian steakhouse. 

“We’re going to do it in our own phases,” Tober says. “We’ll probably be a week to 10 days behind each [of the state’s reopening phases] so we can do it at our own pace.” 

Ultimately, Tober says he expects it’s going to be much like “corralling children,” with him and staff members trying to keep people in line. He just hopes all this work will pay off. 

“Is the volume going to be there?” he asks. “Is the juice going to be worth the squeeze?”

Got a tip? Email Nadia Hamdan at nhamdan@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @nadzhamz.

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