June 30, 2020
Bars Take Hardest Hit in Texas Virus Reclosing
as Unorganized Force without Lobby Protection
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
Texas bar owners have been easy targets in the state's desperation scramble to corral a coronavirus that's out of control as one of the biggest industries that has no real representation at the Capitol in Austin beyond the fledgling craft brewery ranks.
The traditional saloon and tavern proprietors who don't make the beer, wine and whiskey they sell have no statewide association to lobby for their interests during legislative sessions and the interims when unexpected issues and events like pandemics arise.
While the Texas Craft Brewers Guild has made significant strides at the statehouse in recent years as an upstart force within the drinking establishment business, the barkeeps who Governor Greg Abbott shut down late last week for the second time this year have never found the need to be organized until now.
The bars in Texas are one of the last living testaments to a bygone era when mom and pop outfits still prospered before the advent of Walmart and other chain operations that have driven many of the independents out of business in the past few decades.
The conventional barkeeps are learning the hard way now about the need to be armed with lobbyists in the Capital City like other industries that have successfully headed off restrictions that the Republican governor had imposed in the early stages of the initial COVID-19 outbreak this spring.
Bar owners who serve drinks to customers who talk about politics frequently are giving themselves a crash course now in the art of political influence with events like a protest at the statehouse on Tuesday that was difficult to organize without a centralized presence here.
A group called the Texas Bars & Nightclub Alliance has come out of a long hibernation in the wake of the Abbott closure directive with a lawsuit that it hastily assembled in an attempt to overturn the latest order that's shuttered the watering holes here.
The TBNA had been organized originally by bars on Sixth Street in Austin more than 10 years ago when other downtown businesses and residents were complaining about problems that stemmed from weekend partying. The group takes credit for the death of legislation in 2009 that would have strengthened the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's regulatory authority.
But the TBNA was widely unknown in statehouse circles before coming out of the blue last week in defense of the bars that Abbott caught by complete surprise with their selective shuttering in a state where young adults have been spurning social distancing at beaches, parks and other places as well.
The craft breweries that have been popping up in and around Texas cities in recent years have a major head start compared to the old-fashion bars with a collective appeal to Abbott on Monday for relief from the latest closure order that affects the brewpups as well.
But the craft beer and liquor businesses owe a significant part of their limited success with the Legislature to having Houston beer distributor John Nau partly in their corner during the 2019 session when the Beer Alliance of Texas supported a compromise plan that Abbott eventually signed into law.
Traditional bars didn't seem to care when Abbott appointed no one to represent them on the Strike Force to Open Texas - a group of mostly wealthy business executives who do have lobby teams here. The bars are paying a high price now for failing to be prepared to play defense after being singled out by the governor in an executive order that might have been prompted as much for punishment as for the public health and safety protection in a state that's erupted into the new U.S. epicenter amid a massive virus resurgence.
Barkeeps have a right to be upset about the failure to receive the kind of special treatment that Abbott gave hair salons who were allowed to operate illegally without having state licenses temporarily stripped like 20 or more bars have in the past few weeks for ignoring social distancing requirements.
The barbers and hair stylists hadn't have any paid muscle in Austin either until hard-line conservatives rallied behind them in a symbolic rally cry for an end to all coronavirus restrictions regardless of the added suffering and death that such a position would guarantee. But the hair crafting industry got a free pass from Abbott with the revision of an order to retroactively rubber-stamp Dallas beautician Shelley Luther's decision to reopen the Salon A la Mode while taunting the governor and local officials in act of defiance that landed her in jail for a couple of days.
The bars contend that the governor is attempting to punish an entire segment of the Texas economy for the irresponsible actions of a few. But Abbott doesn't see it that way in light of TABC conducted undercover operations that found widespread violations of protocols that were conditions for reopening.
Abbott also ordered Texas restaurants to scale back operations from 75 percent to 50 percent in a move that's a minor inconvenience compared to a full-scale closure. But the businesses that make more than half of their money selling prepared meals have had major muscle in Austin since the Texas Restaurant Association's inception in 1937.
The restaurants have a seat at the decision-making table with Tilman Fertitta as an Abbott strike force member who owns the Landry's seafood chain along with a variety of other businesses including the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association.
Fertitta has been one of the biggest donors to Abbott and other Republicans in Texas. The TBNA hasn't spent any money on state politics based on records at the Texas Ethics Commission.