News that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars to close again because of surging COVID-19 numbers hit The Backyard co-owner Chris Cox like a $50,000 kick in the pocketbook, what he expects to lose this weekend.
“You’re interrupting my crying session,” Cox said by phone Friday. “We’ll be canceling two sold-out concerts.”
Aaron Watson was scheduled to perform Friday evening at The Backyard Bar Stage & Grill, and Casey Donahew was on tap Saturday night.
Both shows were sent staggering by Abbott’s executive order to shutter bars statewide, except for to-go service, and to reduce capacity in restaurants from 75% to 50% starting Monday. Outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people also must be approved by local governments, according to the governor’s executive order.
McLennan County’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases has been even steeper than the state’s. The 72 new cases confirmed locally Friday bring the total to 624, which includes 425 residents with active infections, 193 who have recovered and six who have died. The county’s first day with new cases in the double digits was June 15, less than two weeks ago.
The local rate of total tests coming back positive has grown from 1% on June 10 to 14% as of Wednesday, on a rolling 7-day average basis, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District’s latest published figures.
Statewide, officials confirmed 5,707 new cases Friday, and the past four days have seen the four highest case totals yet. A total of 137,624 Texans have tested positive, and the statewide testing positivity rate has grown from between 6% and 7% in mid-June to 11.7% as of Thursday.
While few if any other local bars will be canceling sold-out shows because of Abbott’s new order Friday, which follows a reinstated limit on elective surgeries in the state’s major metro areas Thursday, those local hangouts will be feeling the pinch. At Barnett’s Public House on Franklin Avenue, they will be shifting back to to-go service, director of operations Kris Bail said.
“I don’t really have a choice. We’re closing our doors,” Bail said. “We’re still preparing to sell cocktails, beer and wine to go, something we got some good practice at the last couple of months. It stinks to have momentum, to have things going, going, going, and then to be told no. I haven’t heard anything one way or another about how long this might last. A couple of weeks, maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasted a month. I think it was a preemptive move with July 4th coming up.”
Carrie Johnson, who owns Klassy Glass Wine Bar & Bistro on Austin Avenue, said the establishment sells enough food to legally be classified as a bistro. Customers typically order something to eat when visiting Klassy Glass.
Klassy Glass will close a couple of hours earlier after the governor’s decision because most late-night traffic is bar traffic, Johnson said.
“I had some concerns from the beginning that we were opening too fast, and we’re seeing the repercussions of that now,” she said.
Johnson also is employed as a nurse practitioner and conducts medical research.
“We’ve got to flatten this curve. We’ve got to get these hospitalization rates under control,” she said. “This is an infectious disease, and when large crowds come together, there is going to be spread.”
Jeremy Mills, general manager at Brown House Cafe on Jordan Lane in Woodway, said he is bracing for the return to occupancy limited to half of capacity and had already seen a shift in customer behavior.
“We’ve been at 75%, and sales have started to climb,” Mills said. “Our crowd size and sales volume depend upon the comfort level of the community. When you see the number of cases going up and you see the masks coming out, people believe the virus has come to their doorstep, and buying habits shift. The past week we’ve seen an uptick in to-go business.”
Overall, as customers return to preferring curbside and to-go service, Mills expects sales volume to drop 5% to 10%, he said.
Trent Neumann, owner of Captain Billy Whizzbang’s hamburger restaurant, said his main location on Lake Air Drive should weather the latest COVID-19 storm with little damage. He said drive-thru service has been brisk, even pushing total sales at the iconic burger joint above pre-COVID-19 levels.
The Whizzbang’s at Union Hall, the new conglomeration of food options at Eighth Street and Franklin Avenue, may prove another story, Neumann said.
“I really hoped this would be winding down by now, but obviously it has not,” he said. “I don’t know the cause, but whatever it is, we have to be safe as we can for everybody. Everybody has really been understanding about the masks. The first day or two, some customers didn’t have them, so we offered them. We’ve not really had any issues at all.”
The cities of Waco, Woodway and Hewitt have implemented rules requiring employees and customers to wear masks inside commercial businesses, and McLennan County commissioners have called an emergency meeting for 9 a.m. Monday to discuss several matters related to the COVID-19 situation, including the potential for a countywide mask rule.
County Judge Scott Felton said he believes commissioners support these efforts and other steps recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but there is sentiment among some that governmental entities should not be dictating policy to business. Some find it irritating that businesses can be fined for allowing visitors to enter without wearing masks, but the individuals violating the rules face no consequences, Felton said.
An older statewide executive order Abbott issued prohibits local governments from making mask rules that include fines against individuals.
Kyle Citrano, president of the Waco Restaurant Association and managing partner of George’s Restaurant Bar & Catering on Hewitt Drive, said he never pushed occupancy beyond 50% of capacity, though he legally could, because complying with social distancing recommendations would not have allowed it.
At 50%, he can seat 185 inside George’s and about 30 on the patio.
“Really, the shift from 75% to 50% hurts smaller places the most,” Citrano said. “This is another setback, and the restaurant and bar industry can’t take many more setbacks. I felt like we were making progress, seeing better numbers and returning to some sense of normalcy. Delivery and curbside were contributing to the revenue. But we were told and always knew that there could be another problem. The June numbers spiked, and we’re already seeing traffic counts go down and to-go popping back up.”
Cox, at The Backyard, said the venue “falls under that 51% rule.”
Abbott’s order requires all bars and similar establishments that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages to close.
“Even if I found some loophole, public opinion can be horrible,” Cox said. “Either I would be a hero or run out of town for throwing caution to the wind. I want to do what’s right. As things stand, we’re not even allowed to open for dine-in. We’ll have to go to carry-out or delivery.
“We see this as a slippery slope. The governor’s action … we think we’re being targeted unfairly, but we understand there is a problem, and it’s not a fight we want to fight. There is a temptation to point fingers at all the protests, the beaches and the amusement parks, where people are shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Some bar supporters have already started to organize demonstrations in opposition to Abbott’s action Friday.