Big Star Bar has not sold a beer since March, but it still has to pay its bills.
Co-owner Brad Moore said the popular Heights watering hole leases its building at 1005 W. 19th St., so its prolonged closure on account of the COVID-19 pandemic has left it “hurting” from an economic standpoint. So Moore wants to reopen as soon as possible, and Big Star Bar recently reached the verge of being legally permitted to do so.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Oct. 7 that he would allow bars and similar alcohol-oriented businesses open Wednesday in counties with low COVID-19 hospitalization rates – if county judges in those locales allowed that to happen. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo subsequently said she would not allow bars to reopen in her jurisdiction, meaning Big Star Bar must remain closed for the time being.
Moore said he doesn’t blame Hidalgo for her decision, but he doesn’t completely agree with it either.
“We need to open, but not at the risk of spreading the virus, not at the risk of doing something irresponsible,” he said.
That is a big question that continues to face all business owners, but especially those who run bars, nightclubs, brewpubs and wineries. Abbott previously cited his reopening of those businesses in late May as a primary reason for a subsequent spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state, which prompted him to order them closed again in late June.
But here’s the kicker: Most bars and breweries in the area, and in Houston in general, already are open. That’s because the state, in an attempt to ease the financial burden on those businesses, made it easier for them to obtain food and beverage permits from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and reclassify as restaurants – which have been allowed to serve customers on their premises for months.
The TABC rule change went into effect in early August, and most alcohol-oriented businesses in the area have taken advantage. They can do so by tying offering food along with alcohol, so long as non-alcohol sales account for at least 51 percent of their revenue.
“There’s a million loopholes,” said Patrick Christian, co-owner of Great Heights Brewing Company at 938 Wakefield Dr. in Garden Oaks. “Pretty much everyone is open.”
That’s great for business, and Christian acknowledged as much. His brewpub has been open for on-site consumption since early September while being tied to a pizza food truck called The Purple Flour, and Christian said sales have increased as a result.
But what about mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which is the reason bars had to close in the first place and the reason why owners have had to jump through hoops and shell out money for new permits and services just so they could reopen? Christian said he and his brewpub are all about keeping customers safe, so they’ve implemented social distancing protocols while reopening.
He also said the reopening of bars – er, restaurants – around the region has been a boost to revenue, because breweries such as Great Heights supply them with kegs for draft sales.
“I don’t think anybody would argue that having food service makes an establishment safer to be in,” Christian said. “A mathematical equation about where your sales are coming from is not keeping anyone safe.”
Moore said Big Star Bar has not taken advantage of the TABC permitting change in part because the staff has not yet felt comfortable enough to reopen, and also because he and his fellow owners “don’t think we can sell enough food to legitimize that license.”
But the bar wants to reopen and soon, so Moore said he hopes the region’s COVID-19 numbers continue to improve and that Hidalgo softens her stance on reopenings in the coming weeks. When that time comes, Moore said Big Star Bar plans to utilize its big outdoor patio and keep customers from congregating indoors.
“Ultimately, we defer to the planet, because the planet is governed by science, inevitably,” Moore said. “We pay attention to the CDC and Hidalgo, but ultimately it’s what happens with our darn world.”
Hidalgo deserves credit for sticking to her principles and urging caution at a time when many just want to move on from the pandemic and return to a sense of normalcy – even though there’s no vaccine for the coronavirus and it continues to spread and cause illness and deaths. But many of her decisions already have been undermined by Abbott and the state, which allowed bars to reopen long before they “officially” were allowed to reopen.
So Hidalgo might as well opt in to the governor’s latest executive order, like other counties in the Houston area have done. Then Big Star Bar can start reversing its economic fortunes and sell drinks to customers while keeping them on an open-air patio – and the alcohol-oriented businesses that already have reopened can stop pretending to be restaurants and worry more about safety protocols than food sales.