LONGVIEW, Texas — The State of Texas tried to offer a lifeline to bars, brewpubs, and wineries that have been shut down because of the pandemic. But businesses in East Texas have not been able to take advantage of it, and that is adding to their frustration.
Melissa Lynn Kelly stood in the back of her business, Outlaws Longview Bar, Thursday afternoon, staring at a group of eight friends sitting under tents on a lawn up the hill. But they are not campers; they are her customers. Bars are currently only allowed to sell to-go orders and deliveries, so Outlaws’ neighbor agreed to let customers sit in their yard, accepting beer deliveries from the bartenders. While they are fans of Outlaws, they are not fans of Gov. Greg Abbott or the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC).
“TABC has preached and preached that they’re here to help us, they’re here to help us,” Kelly said. “They are not here to help us, because I have jumped through hoops, I have tried to go every route that I can possibly go with them, and they keep pushing me down.”
TABC posted a letter dated August 7 which outlines two paths which bars, brewpubs, and wineries can pursue in order to reopen. The first method is to submit an audit showing that less than 51 percent of its sales since April have come from alcohol, which would qualify them as a restaurant. The other method is to demonstrate that they have changed their business model by adding a permanent food truck or kitchen capacity in order to qualify as a restaurant.
Kelly took the path of adding a kitchen. She said TABC rejected the first menu she proposed, but approved the second, which features foods that can be made in slow-cookers.
“They said that I needed to have all of the right equipment in my bar, which I do,” Kelly said. “I have the three-bay sink, I have the prep sink, I have the hand-washing sink. I have all of the small details that they told me that I needed to have.”
Kelly sent in the $776 application fee, which she said was taken out of her bank account on Monday. The following morning, however, she received an email from TABC denying her application.
“They’re telling me that I need a permanent food service facility,” she stated. “They will not give me anything more than that. I have emailed them. They have quit corresponding with me.”
Kelly is one of many local business owners frustrated that they remain shut down.
True Vine Brewing has always had Sola Bread’s food truck on site but got rejected, and its owner wrote in a Facebook post about the confusion stemming from TABC’s decisions and lack of communication. Kiepersol has a restaurant and hotel but cannot reopen its tasting room.
Kelly, who bought Outlaws in December after nearly two decades as an employee, said she was able to withstand the first time bars were forced closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. But when Gov. Abbott closed bars again on June 26, it put her on the brink of financial ruin.
“I had everything that I had set aside for bills for this month. I took the chance that I could get this kitchen going and get my food permit. I put every penny I had into—I’m sorry,” she said, struggling to control her emotion, “into getting this kitchen set up.”
Kelly said her regular customers organized a donation drive to help her pay her bills for August, but she said fewer and fewer customers show up each day as the summer heat drags on. She has TABC stopped responding to her calls and emails when she tries to ask what more she needs to fit its criteria for a permanent food service facility. She also said she does not see why food would make her business more acceptable to state leaders.
“What I don’t understand is: if I have a kitchen in there and—say, for instance—that I sell you some French fries with a beer,” she explained, “guess what? You’re not gonna get COVID. But, if you don’t get those French fries, you’re gonna get COVID.”
Gov. Abbott said Tuesday that he will consider reopening bars, brewpubs, and wineries if the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations keeps falling and if the positivity rate falls below 10 percent, which was the threshold that led him to close them initially.
The positivity rate was 13.2 percent on June 26 when Gov. Abbott closed those businesses. It peaked at 24.5 percent on Wednesday before falling to 16.1 percent on Thursday.
“Those doors have been closed since June 26,” Kelly stated. “Those numbers are not because of us because we haven’t had people in there. So, how can he say that the bars are the problem?