HOUSTON, Texas — The din of conversation and music that normally fills The Cottonmouth Club in downtown Houston fell silent when the owners shut it down for a second time during the coronavirus pandemic — a week before the Texas governor ordered all bars to follow suit amid a surge in infections.
Co-owner Michael Neff — questioning what he saw as a rush to reopen by the state and wondering if his industry was making things worse as some bars flouted rules on occupancy limits — said he felt he could no longer provide a safe environment for his staff or customers at the neighborhood bar with a rock ‘n’ roll vibe.
He and his staff had started hearing of workers at other bars getting sick.
“Texas was a terrible, terrible experiment because it experimented with people’s lives and this is where we are,” Neff said.
That ended Friday, with Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that bars would again be shuttered as the state reported record highs in virus cases and hospitalizations.
The decision also came with Abbott's acknowledgement in an ABC-7 interview that he had allowed bars to reopen too soon.
"If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the re-opening of bars," the governor said, expressing regret over his decision and "now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting."
Neff said while he faulted bars that ignored the rules, he also lays blame on local and state officials for what he says was a lack of guidance and support, a lack of a statewide mask order and, until recently, a lack of enforcement.
It’s a sentiment shared by other bar and restaurant owners across the state and beyond who have been deeply hurt financially by anti-virus measures and are also struggling with tough decisions, with some shutting down again after workers became infected or closing as a precaution because of rising cases in their areas.
In a nearly eight-minute video he posted online earlier this month, Neff vented his frustration, beginning with a message directed at Abbott: “You’re leading us to die.”
An email from the Associated Press seeking comment from a spokesman for Abbott was not immediately returned. During his interview with ABC-7 on Friday, Abbott said his goal has always been to reduce cases and keep people out of hospitals while also "restoring livelihoods."
The governor also told ABC-7, in hindsight, he's now concluded that "a bar setting, in reality, just doesn't work with a pandemic."
From the time bars and clubs in Texas could reopen on May 22 with indoor service, social media had been filled with photos and videos showing packed businesses that were obviously not following rules on capacity and social distancing.
But the first operation by the state to suspend the alcohol permits of establishments that ignored rules didn’t happen until a week ago. At least a dozen bars, including two in El Paso, ultimately had their licenses pulled for 30 days due to violations.
In closing bars again on Friday, Abbott said the rise in confirmed cases was “largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.” Abbott also ordered restaurants to scale back to half capacity starting Monday.
He added that “every Texan has a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask” — but he has not mandated their use statewide. He did recently allow cities and counties to order businesses to require that their customers wear masks.
An ongoing survey by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston of restaurants and bars in the Austin area found that many are frustrated that the governor has left it up to cities and counties to decide if they would mandate masks, said Mark Jones, one of the research fellows involved in the study.
Neff said he is worried about losing his bar and has worked to find other revenue streams, including selling cocktails to go, starting a podcast and holding a nightly virtual bar livestream. But he said he also feels a responsibility to let people know what went wrong and to help ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
“We are not going to be successful in reopening our economies if we do it the way we’ve been doing it,” he said. “And no one wants that kind of sacrifice both in business and in lives.”