The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) has announced a temporary “closing time” for 17 bars across Texas due to COVID-19 violations over the past weekend.
The TABC said provisions violated by the bars included 50 percent and 75 percent capacity limits for bars and restaurants, respectively, and the required six-foot distance between customers.
Those limits were established by Governor Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas.
“Protecting the health and safety of Texans during this pandemic is our top priority,” TABC Executive Director Bentley Nettles said.
“I’m incredibly proud of all the TABC employees working to ensure Texas bars and restaurants are able to operate safely. Our goal from the start has been to educate business owners about the requirements of the Governor’s executive order, and our Enforcement, Legal and Communications teams have done outstanding work to keep the industry and the public informed on ways to stay safe while helping to reopen the Texas economy.”
Bars in violation will have their licenses suspended for 30 days, and TABC has investigated some 3,500 businesses with licenses across Texas.
Establishments that have had licenses suspended are:
- Austin: Buford’s Backyard Beer Garden, UnBARlievable (West 6th), Soho Lounge, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse
- Dallas: Harris House of Heroes, Marty’s Live
- El Paso: Coconuts, Werk Bar
- Fort Worth: The Cantina (W. Exchange Ave.), The New PR’s
- Houston: Handlebar Houston
- Laredo: Siete Banderas
- Longview: Electric Cowboy
- Lubbock: Little Woodrow’s
- McAllen: Elevate Night Club
- San Antonio: Burnhouse
- Seabrook: BARge 295
TABC further stated, “[We have] the authority to suspend any license that poses a continuing threat to the public welfare.” First-time offenses will be met with a 30-day suspension and the next with a 60-day suspension.
This enforcement comes after months of government-mandated closures and/or capacity limitations. A survey just from mid-March to early-April found that 20 percent of bars and restaurants closed permanently and many more struggled mightily to stay afloat.
One of the bars penalized was Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse.
Austin Talley, the establishment’s operations director, disputed the veracity of the TABC’s accusation in a public statement, specifying, “[O]n the evening of June 19, 2020, during an inspection of the premises, the State officials did not advise, warn or express any concern of an alleged ‘threat to the public welfare.’”
“On the contrary, the State officials expressed their satisfaction with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse’s compliance and action, and allowed us to continue operating without any changes or concerns,” he continued.
As many other businesses have, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot struggled to make it through the mandatory closure period and relished the opportunity to reopen.
Taking aim at state leadership, he added, “Like many small businesses, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse has struggled to survive in these trying times; however, the State has decided to further jeopardize our survival by over-reaching and penalizing small businesses for the individual choices of their patrons and their rights.”
Talley told The Texan that TABC officials came to the bar at 12:08 a.m. early Saturday morning. Rather than specify any issues with operations, Talley stated, the TABC officials left without informing the establishment violations had occurred.
Asked whether investigators inform establishments of violations on-scene, TABC spokesman Chris Porter told The Texan, “In those cases where the agents found a violation, video and other evidence is recorded and reviewed as soon as possible by TABC’s Enforcement and Legal teams. If the review confirms that a potential violation took place, the business will be notified. In most cases, this means that the business is informed the day following the TABC inspection.”
In a startling display of bureaucratic efficiency, KXAN reported after 7 a.m. that morning that citations had been issued by TABC to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Buford’s Backyard Beer Garden.
Talley was not served the citations until 3 p.m. that day.
The bar had been operating at 50 percent or less capacity, despite being allowed to open at 75 percent as they’re an outdoor bar. Their COVID-19 capacity is 408 but the official TABC headcount Talley was given during the time of the visit was 131.
Later, Talley was informed the citation was for lack of social distancing enforcement, or the six-foot requirement.
He queried, “If we were such a public safety threat, why didn’t they shut us down right then and there?”
When asked for clarification on this, Porter specified, “TABC does not take suspending a business’ permit lightly. These violations differ from a standard TABC administrative violation because they result in an immediate 30-day suspension rather than an administrative notice or warning. Because of this, TABC has enacted additional off-site review of evidence to more closely examine what took place and determine if a suspension is necessary.”
Talley and his establishment have filed a grievance and request for an immediate hearing. Legally, a court date is required within 10 days of the filing. Talley told The Texan he has yet to be notified of a hearing date.
The State Office of Administrative Hearings sets hearings for these types of citations, and Porter added that “TABC does not play a direct role in scheduling.”
Should the citation stand, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot will struggle to get through the suspension period, which will be stacked on top of the 60 days already closed down. He further added that if TABC succeeds in preserving this suspension and were to implement another for a second offense a month from now, it’d be the death knell for his business.
“With 90 days of suspension, on top of the already mandated 60 days, we’d be sunk.”
Reflecting on the injurious enforcement, Talley, a Navy veteran who this year ran as a Republican for Texas House District 45, emphasized, “This is not the Texas I love and grew up with.”
“We’re destroying the historic face of Austin,” he added, referring to the number of marquee establishments that have closed during the last couple of months, “and putting employees and business owners out on the streets.”
Bars weren’t allowed to begin reopening until May 22.
Encouraging public reporting, the City of Austin tweeted on Tuesday, “If an individual believes the Order is being violated by a business, they can report it directly to Austin 3-1-1. Austin Code will reach out to the business regarding the complaint with a warning followed by further enforcement for additional offenses.”
In a press conference yesterday, Governor Abbott expressed concern over the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, but said that re-closing the economy would be the last resort.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include responses from the TABC.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.