'We're All Just Emotionally Drained': Austin Bars Respond To Second Shutdown

Jul 2, 2020

Travis Tober was finally finding a rhythm. 

When people entered his East Austin bar, Nickel City, they were greeted by an employee who laid out all the ground rules: No mask, no entry. Tables would be 6 feet apart. No loitering at the bar top. A waiter or waitress would take their orders. 

He even kept the bar at 25% capacity, less than the 50% allowed by the state, just to be on the safe side. 

“I really, truly believe nobody got sick, [and] I know we didn’t get any of our employees sick,” Tober said. “Our system worked.” 

Tober says the bar started making some money again – not much but definitely more than during the closures. He was able to bring back his entire staff full time, and, he says, the customers seemed genuinely happy to have their neighborhood bar back open. 

Travis Tober says he had kept his bar, Nickel City, open at 25% capacity when bars were allowed to operate at 50%.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

"What we were doing was sustainable for months ahead,” Tober said. “I even told my staff we would have 25% occupancy for the rest of the summer no matter what happened.” 

But he didn’t get a chance to test that theory. Instead, Nickel City was forced to shut down – for a second time. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday issued an emergency order requiring all bars to close that same day. The move came in response to a surge in the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the state. 

“If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting,” Abbott said in an interview with a TV news station in El Paso. 

Abbott did not point to specific data implicating bars as a main spreader of the virus, but public health officials have noted that the increase in Texas began around Memorial Day when bars were first allowed to reopen. 

“I feel like we were scapegoated a little bit,” said Will Tanner, co-owner of Hole in the Wall, Stay Gold and the Long Play Lounge. “I don’t think [Abbott] knows how many more transmissions were at bars rather than at H-E-B or at a barbershop. If they’re a bad actor, they’re just a bad actor.” 

Like Nickel City, Tanner says he reopened his bar Hole in the Wall with the proper safety protocols. Masks, social distancing, 50% capacity. He also put up a plexiglass shield on the bar top to protect both employees and patrons. 

Even though Hole in the Wall was only making about 10% to 15% of the profits it was making before the pandemic, Tanner says just being able to see the staff made it worth it. 

“It felt really good,” he said. “[Now], being told you can’t do that anymore, it’s kind of a gut punch.” 

Will Tanner is co-owner of Hole in the Wall, Stay Gold and the Long Play Lounge.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

But Tanner said given the severity of the situation, he will continue to do his best to follow the guidance directed to him by state and local leaders. 

Other Texas bars are not as accepting of this second round of closures. On Monday, more than 30 Texas bars filed a lawsuit in Travis County challenging the governor’s emergency order. This was followed by a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday where several Texas bars sought $10 million in damages and asked the court to stop Abbott from enforcing the shutdown. 

Tober says he did see some bars in Austin that were blatantly breaking the rules set out by the state. When Abbott allowed bars to open again in late May, Tober visited dozens of them to see how their owners were enforcing these new guidelines – hoping to learn better ways to run Nickel City. He said he witnessed firsthand multiple bars that weren’t requiring masks or social distancing, with some even opening at 100% capacity. 

“I think if [those bars] would have stuck to [the rules] we might still be open,” Tober said. “But everybody didn’t, so now we’re all paying the price.” 

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission suspended permits at four Austin bars that were found to have violated the governor’s safety guidelines. 

In an effort to help bars bring in some revenue during the closures, Abbott has extended a waiver allowing bars to sell mixed drinks to-go and for delivery, which had been against the law. It’s an option Tober and his team had tried to do the first time they were ordered to close. But this time around he has no such plans. 

“We’re all just emotionally drained [and] tired,” Tober said. “Now the juice is definitely not worth the squeeze.”

Tober’s plan is to stay closed until bars are allowed to reopen again – whenever that happens. He’s prepared for the possibility that he may not see his staff until the fall. But he’s still trying to stay positive. 

“People [will] want to go out again, eventually, and they’re going to want to go out to a safe environment,” he said. “We are going to be one of those bars.”

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

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