The first time Gov. Greg Abbott shut down the bars in March, The Celt Irish Pub owner Stan Penn held the “Save Our Square” car rally for his fellow business owners on McKinney’s downtown square who had been denied PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans in favor larger corporations.
“This is really about Congress and the big banks,” he said at the time. “We were told a lifeline was coming and it wasn’t there.”
Nearly 250 cars arrived, helping to raise $14,000 in cash donations. It seemed like a storm they could weather.
Three months later, Gov. Abbott announced that he was closing bars again and signed another executive order outlining another set of rules and restrictions in the hopes of flatting the virus’ infection rate. The state’s positivity rate for COVID-19 has climbed from 6.8 percent to 13.7 percent and hospitalizations have more than tripled over the last month, according to data by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Gov. Abbott’s new executive order isn’t as strict as the first order he issued in March. It still forbids public gatherings in bars yet allows take-out and delivery orders.
“After the first round, we had hope and we knew we were going to make it because of the PPP and disaster loans and even though it was a struggle and a real fight, we knew we were gonna make it,” Penn says. “At this point, I’d put the odds of The Celt surviving at 50/50 at best.”
Penn only has three of his staff of 30 employees running his establishment. They are just keeping the place clean and cared for while it’s closed. There’s not even a to-go or delivery service in place because it makes more financial sense to just stay closed.
“It’s just like if you’re an airline and you’ve only got 10 percent of the seats filled,” Penn says. “It’s less expensive to not have that flight. We’re losing $1,500 a day. If we were to open up for to-go food, it would be $2,000 because of salaries, utilities and the taxes we’d have to pay.”
Shortly after Gov. Abbott issued his executive order in late June, dozens of bar owners gathered at the state capitol in Austin, proclaiming “Bar Lives Matter” too. To prove it, they filed a class action lawsuit to stop Gov. Abbott’s order from sending them into bankruptcy. They argue that it is unconstitutional on the state and federal levels.
The lawsuit was filed in early July in Travis County. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include the owners of local bars such as Shots & Crafts and the Fry Street Tavern in Denton and the Northside Drafthouse & Eatery in Richardson.
The lawsuit claims the state order “unlawfully suspends laws” and “illegally vague and arbitrary” because it “singles out bars.” The suit cites the order’s stipulation that “People shall not visit bars or similar establishments that hold a permit from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and are not restaurants.”
Outlaws Longview Bar owner Melissa Lynn Kelly told NPR in a July 4 report, ” Governor Abbott is sitting up there in his mansion in Austin, he’s not worried about where his next meal is coming from. He’s not worried about when his lights are going to be turned off. How fair is that? I have put everything into that bar – everything that I’ve ever had and everything that I own right now is in that bar.
“Right now, we are shut down indefinitely. I can’t feed my family. I can’t pay my bartenders so that they can feed their family. I mean, come on. If you’re not going to pass from COVID-19, you’re going to starve to death.”
Penn didn’t join the lawsuit like Kelly and other bar owners across the state because he says he’s not the kind of guy who sues someone.
“I’m not looking to sue anybody,” Penn says. “All I’m asking for is a fair playing field where we’re all treated the same.”
Penn’s concerns have more to do with how the order is being applied to bars and restaurants across the state. He mentions that his full kitchen serves close to 40 percent of food and that they offer live music yet they were forced to close while another restaurant who makes 41 percent of their revenue on food is allowed to remain open.
“My biggest problem here is Gov. Abbott picked out one segment, one industry, establishments that sell a majority of alcohol,” Penn says. “… It’s attack on our industry because we’re a ‘sin’ industry.”
Penn doesn’t have any issue with safety requirements that encourage social distancing and face masks and points out that his place was diligently doing what it could to keep customers safe in the month it was open. “If we’re asked to do something to fight COVID, that’s what we’re going to do,” he says.
If the state expects places like The Celt to close during the outbreak to slow the infection rate, Penn says other businesses should be required to do the same for everyone’s health and well being.
“When the leader of the 10th largest economy in the world declares war on bars and restaurants, there are going to be casualties,” Penn says. “People are going to lose their jobs and all we’re asking is a level, fair playing ground with the restaurants. We’ve been closed for almost two weeks and the numbers are still going up. I don’t think it’s fair to blame The Celt [or other bars] for the increase in COVID-19 because we’ve gone above and beyond [to keep people safe].”