Mike Bell said he’s already several thousand dollars in the hole on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced him to close his Heights-area bar more than two months ago. The Shady Acres Saloon owner said he needs to reopen soon or he’ll risk going out of business.
Bell has the opportunity to do that on Friday, when bars all over Texas are allowed to open their doors and welcome back customers, but he said he plans to pass. He said limiting his saloon to 25 percent building occupancy, a requirement for reopening according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, would not make financial sense considering the overhead costs associated with operating.
“It’s probably not worth it,” Bell said.
Helping businesses make money at a time when the economy is crumbling is the chief objective behind Abbott’s plan for a phased reopening of the state as it continues to cope with COVID-19, the highly contagious disease caused by the new coronavirus. The governor permitted the reopening of restaurant dining rooms, retail stores, movie theaters, hair salons, exercise gyms and childcare centers earlier this month, while bars, bowling alleys, skating rinks and zoos are among the businesses that can reopen Friday.
But a common refrain among local business owners is that reopening with a series of social distancing restrictions and sanitation protocols, and at a time when many employees and potential customers remain reluctant to venture out and expose themselves, is not viable.
Harold’s Restaurant, Bar & Rooftop Terrace on West 19th Street, which like most other area restaurants had been operating as a delivery and to-go business since mid-March, reopened part of its dining room earlier this month. Owner Alli Jarrett said the greatest challenge has been enticing her servers and bartenders to return to work.
With the downstairs taproom still closed but the upstairs dining room and patio open, Jarrett said she’s had up to about 30 customers at any one time. That’s about as much as she can seat while keeping tables at least 6 feet apart, a social distancing requirement included in Abbott’s order, so Jarrett said she will not be able to safely expand her customer capacity from 25 to 50 percent even though she is allowed to do so on Friday.
“This current model with the current space is not profitable,” she said. “We are continually trying to change our business model to find ways that will work. We’re going to keep trying to find those ways and hopefully come out on the other side.”
Robert Torres, the owner of Del Mar Lanes on Mangum Road, said it’s “questionable” whether it will be viable to reopen his bowling alley at 25 percent occupancy. But Torres said the business will reopen nonetheless at 9 a.m. Friday, with half of his 24 lanes closed in order to promote social distancing.
Torres said the bowling alley took a financial hit as a result of its extended closure, with some employees having to be laid off, but he also used the down time to renovate Del Mar Lanes. He said there are new lights and a new sound system, new murals, new tile flooring and an expanded game room for kids.
Local seniors who compete in bowling leagues are most excited about the reopening, according to Torres, who said some of his most loyal customers previously went to Del Mar Lanes multiple times per week and sometimes when they were not even bowling.
“They’re devoted, dedicated to their sport. They love it,” Torres said. “For a lot of people it’s exercise. It’s a social gathering for them.”
Co-owner Sean Bednarz said Great Heights Brewing Company, a local craft brewer on Wakefield Drive in Garden Oaks, is grateful for the support of the neighborhood. A steady stream of to-go sales has enabled the business to pay all its bills, Bednarz said, so Great Heights is not in a rush to reopen its small taproom.
Bednarz said his business likely will wait at least another week before doing so, even though that figures to be more profitable. He said he is concerned about the safety of his employees and customers and wants to make sure the brewpub is thorough in putting precautionary measures in place.
“We could open the taproom at 25 percent capacity and not really have any more costs,” Bednarz said. “For us, it’s more of a safety issue.”
Another local staple that could have reopened Monday also is holding off, at least temporarily. The YMCA of Greater Houston is opening in phases beginning June 1, with the Harriet and Joe Foster Family YMCA on West 34 Street planning to initially offer camps, lap swimming and outdoor group exercise classes.
Bell said he is targeting the final weekend in May or the start of June for a reopening of the Shady Acres Saloon. And when the bar reopens, he said only the outside patio will be open to customers.
“I’m most likely not going to open up until the first of June,” Bell said. “Hopefully the restrictions will be a lot less and so forth. But I’m going to have to open up by June 1 no matter what, otherwise I’m going to go under.”