With restaurants, retail stores, malls, and movie theaters reopening at 25% capacity as of last Friday, remaining businesses have been left waiting for Phase 2 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s incremental plan to reopen Texas. While the governor just okayed the reopenings of hair salons, barbershops, gyms, wedding ceremonies, swimming pools, and formerly nonessential manufacturing services as soon as now and as late as May 18, he conspicuously left out bars, though “mid-May,” as he said on April 27, was his target date for them. Seems Texas watering holes may have to wait a little while longer. A call to the governor’s office was not returned by press time.
Local bars are still preparing for go time. After over a month of self-mixed and -poured cocktails in our living rooms, we have been wondering which popular Fort Worth drinking establishments are going to open once Abbott says it’s OK. And if any won’t.
Poag Mahone’s and Thompson’s Bookstore plan to reopen their doors as soon as it’s legal and learn how to operate with their employees wearing the proper protective wear.
“We’ll power-wash and clean everything from top to bottom,” said Glen Keely, who co-owns the Irish pub in the West 7th corridor and the downtown cocktail lounge. He plans to set up sanitizer stations at the front and back doors, in front of the bathroom doors, and behind the bars for their bartenders to actively use.
“I hope people come out,” Keely said. “Everyone has a different idea of safety, and that’s OK. You do what you feel you should do.
“Unfortunately,” Keely continued, “we lost money in sales, but me and my partner, Will Wells, left a lot of money in the business, so we’ve been able to ride that. We’ve kept our managers on the payroll and furloughed all of our bartenders. We have reserves that we were saving for rainy days. We were thinking that rainy day was slow business. We never expected anything like this, but luckily we’ll be able to get through it. We’re almost to the other side.”
What “pisses” off Keely, he said, are to-go alcohol sales.
“It’s not offered for bars,” he said. “It’s only for restaurants. And now they’re talking about letting it stay. Bars and restaurants operate very similarly in the way they run, yet one of them is allowed to do it and the other one isn’t? I called the [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission] and said, ‘I know we don’t have a large kitchen, but we could order pre-packaged meals from Sysco to serve it with our alcohol to go.’ They told us no. The bars are opening later than most restaurants, which doesn’t make any sense when you talk about the spread of disease, but the bigger [issue] is the to-go alcohol. We don’t operate any different than a restaurant, other than we’re not serving food. Same service and procedures. Why are we unable to do that? I feel like a second-class citizen.”
When asked if The Usual will open if Abbott initiates Phase 2, Jason Pollard, a managing partner at the Near Southside cocktail lounge, said, “I think the plan right now is we’re trying to make the best decision with the best information that we can. I don’t want to say, ‘Yes, we are going to officially reopen when Abbott says,’ because we’re going to have to look at things and see where everything is at and see what the best thing is to do for the safety of our employees and our guests. Information changes every single day and every single hour.”
Usual staff is currently working on a plan to implement safety precautions. “We’ve got to see where everything is when it comes time to actually reopen,” Pollard said, “but we’ve been talking with other bars about the steps that they’re taking. We plan do to everything that’s recommended by the state, plus whatever else we can.
“I haven’t seen any recommendations for bars specifically,” he continued, “just what they’re doing for dining rooms, which is removing tables, keeping a safe distance, and sanitizing surfaces. I know a bunch of people are putting up sanitizer stations so people can sanitize their hands more frequently.
“We’re committed to coming back and being as strong as ever, whenever we can do that safely,” Pollard continued. “We are trying to utilize whatever resources we can and look at different ways we can structure the business going forward, because we can do that — we can come back stronger. We’ve got a great team. I think that’s what I’m missing the most right now, being out there seeing people and being able to be out there with my team.”
In response to the continuation of restaurants selling to-go alcohol, Pollard said, “We have to make our voices heard on that one. I’ve been talking with other people around the state about really trying to find a singular voice where all of us can say, ‘Hey, we contribute to the economy as well. Let’s try to bring some reason to these to-go laws.’ ”
In a Facebook message, Lisa Little-Adams said her Near Southside cocktail lounge Proper will open “probably, depending on conditions. We’re monitoring the situation and will make a plan as it gets closer. The health and safety of our guests and employees are important, and we won’t be doing anything reckless.”
Proper is currently selling nonalcoholic drinks. She added, “#BeKindToEachOther and #BeProper.”
A co-owner of The Boiled Owl Tavern on the Near Southside, Autumn Brackeen feels it’s too soon to make a decision about reopening. “We are closely following the numbers in Tarrant County, and we’re definitely going to check in with our staff a little bit closer, just to see where everyone is and how they feel about returning to work,” Brackeen said. “We’re not strictly going by any announcement. We will make the decision on our own based on our comfort level.”
In a situation so foreign to us all, it’s hard to know what is best. We only know what feels best for the individual and for each individual business.
The Owl will be using plastic drinkware for the foreseeable future, installing hand sanitizers, and improving upon their standard operating procedure for daily and deep cleaning, Brackeen said.
“There will probably be more precautions taken as we figure out the new normal for the time being,” she said. “I think it will return to normal eventually. We have an outstanding customer base, who are also our friends. Everyone has been so supportive of our decisions so far.”
Brackeen had plans to stage a soft opening for her forthcoming bar, Tarantula Tiki Lounge, on March 27. “Obviously, the inability to open doors, and still have bills to pay, has been a struggle, but we know people are going to come out and support us when the time is right,” Brackeen said. “People have been so incredibly kind, donating to the Owl staff and buying gift cards for the Tarantula.”
The name of the tiki lounge came from the episode of The Brady Bunch in which the family vacationed to Hawaii.
“We wanted to do something different from the Owl,” said Steve Steward, the Tarantula’s “director of vibe” and a Weekly contributor. “We want it to be distinctive, low lighting, with a genre of music playing called exotica.”
“Exotica” can be described as musical impressions of travel destinations, such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the Amazon. It is mixed with bird songs and evokes a tropical energy. “You could almost film a movie in the bar,” Steward said.
“We’re not going to reopen Tarantula Tiki Lounge until we’re comfortable,” he added. “We want our staff to feel safe. It all depends on what the experts say. As long as the doctors and scientists say it’s cool, we’ll open the doors for a soft opening in May.”
The Local plans to open as soon as bars are allowed. When asked what safety precautions will be implemented at the West 7th bar, owner Morgan Roberts responded, “Not sure how we’re going to handle it yet. As we get closer to an opening date, we’ll have a full staff meeting and figure it out from there.”
When asked how the bar’s future will be affected by the pandemic, Roberts said, “No one really knows as of yet. Obviously, as a bar owner, we hope customers will return, which I personally think will happen. I guess time will tell.”
And he couldn’t be more right.
“If and when they give us the all clear, we are prepared to do so,” said Chris Maunder, who owns the music venue and bar-bar The Moon by TCU. “We’re excited about it. I’m sure there’s a lot of people against it, but we’re the ones taking all this risk. I can understand their apprehension, and I respect that. We have a couple staff who aren’t sure that they’re ready to get back into public, and that’s totally understandable. Aside from those two, my employees are ready to come back to work.”
The Moon staff plans to follow every guideline available. “From restaurant association to the state to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], if there’s a guideline for operating safely, we obviously want to make sure we’re doing that,” Maunder said.
When asked how the bar’s future will be affected by the pandemic, he responded, “That’s a really good question, and I think that’s something that all of us have in our heads: ‘What does that look like? What can we expect?’ Obviously, we’re not in the same boat as some of the larger restaurants and bars in town — our staffing has always been minimal and our expenses are a lot less. I don’t know how much it will impact us. We were open only four months or so prior to closing. If anything, this gave us the opportunity to take a step back and see what we can do better. Hopefully, as things start to roll out, we’ll continue to see our sales go in the direction we were looking for. We have almost an entire acre behind our brick and mortar, so we look forward to utilizing that space the way we envisioned. That might be down the road, but in the meantime, we’ll use what we have available to us to keep moving forward.”
In addition to the Moon’s ample backyard, Maunder purchased a 28-foot Airstream right before the outbreak. He plans to turn it into a satellite bar out back.
“We’ve got three big garage doors we can open up so we can have air moving throughout the space all the time,” he added. “When they say 25% capacity, we’ll click that many people in, but having this much space outside, it makes sense for people to come out. We can practice social distancing. In times like this, it’s a blessing.”
Maunder said that if the lockdown would have happened while he was running The Moon at its previous location, near the intersection of West Berry Street and University Boulevard, his situation would have been much more dire. The old Moon was only 1,500 square feet of enclosed space.
Though MASS co-owner Ryan Higgs cares about the health and safety of his employees and customers, he feels if rent and bills reactivate, then, “Maybe we’ll have to open.”
He mentioned that the day before a lot of businesses reopened on Friday, Tarrant County turned in its second-highest numbers.
“It doesn’t seem like the right time,” Higgs said, “but you have to do what you have to do to keep your business going. I think everyone will reopen, and I think everyone will take all of the necessary precautions.”
Higgs said he will encourage his employees to wear masks.
“It’s strange with bars, because the first thing we have to do is I.D. these people, so if there’s patrons coming in with masks, we have to tell them to take it down so we can make sure they’re 21,” Higgs said. “I’ll encourage my staff to be as careful as possible. We’ll have hand sanitizing bottles or stations. One thing we started doing was moving to plastic, which I believe is a little bit safer only because it’s one touch. The bartender still has to make the drink, but there’s no washing it or worrying about the water not being right in your sink and somehow [the virus] survived the sink and you pass it on to the next person. I’m sure they’ll come up with some ideas for us that we’ll have to follow. We’re not all bar owners — not everyone’s going to know what to do. They should give us some guidelines just like they do for other businesses.”
Higgs, whose venue has been hosting successful livestreamed performances (the Social Distancing Concert series), believes live music is going to “struggle a bit, especially if they decide to reopen with the 25 or 50% capacity. That’s not the business of live music. It’s to get as many people in there as you can. If you take it down to 25% capacity, well, that might be three bands with four members, two bartenders, a sound man, a door man, before you can even let anybody in. And then I walk in to oversee things, and you’ve got 17 people there. How many people can I let in there? It’s not ideal, but none of this has been.”
Until life turns back to normal, Higgs said he and wife Jenna Hill are working on her new bar. Liberty Lounge is slated to open eight blocks from MASS at 515 S. Jennings Ave.
“It’s pretty much set up to where we can open two weeks after we receive the license,” Higgs said. “We’re in no rush at this point. If they open bars, let’s say May 18, and we have our license by then, we’ll open two weeks later.”
Higgs described Liberty Lounge as your neighborhood bar — a place you’ll probably know who’s serving you behind the counter. With plenty of outdoor seating on the patio and Pizza Bar None across the street willing to deliver to customers, Liberty Lounge has potential.
“I’ve been in the restaurant/bar business my whole life,” Higgs said. “I’ve always told everybody it’s recession-proof. And it is. People are happy, they drink. People are sad, they drink. I never really expected a pandemic. A restaurant is not built to run at 25% capacity. They’re staffed to be full. I feel for the ones that have to be open because they just have bills to pay. Some can afford to stay closed. It’s the right thing to do if you can afford it, but I guarantee the ones that are open are because they can’t afford to be closed. I’m saying that because I know that all of us bar guys are waiting for opening day. We’re not going to feel great about it, but if that’s when all the bills are in, if it’s time to go, it’s time to go. If the governor says we can open, then people expect you to.”
Brian Forella, owner of perhaps the most popular original live music venue in Fort Worth, Lola’s Saloon, declined to be interviewed for this story.