Judges reopen area bars


Starting today, Wednesday, Oct. 14, residents in Burnet and Llano counties can once again belly up to the bar at their favorite watering hole — provided they follow certain precautions.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order last week, leaving it up to county judges to decide if bars in their jurisdictions could reopen to 50 percent capacity beginning Oct. 14.

Abbott’s order also increases occupancy levels for all business establishments — other than bars — to 75 percent on that date.

“Even as more businesses have opened and students return to school, Texans have shown we can contain the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement. “Thanks to Texans following the best health practices, our state is prepared for additional openings, including bars. Working with industry leaders and our team of medical experts, the State of Texas has now developed strategies to safely open bars under certain health protocols.

“To ensure bars open safely, these openings will be done in conjunction with county officials. County judges will be able to opt their county into opening bars so long as they assist in enforcing the health protocols. Opening bars does not mean that COVID-19 is no longer a threat, and most Texans are still susceptible to the virus. As bars and similar businesses begin to open, we all must remain vigilant and show personal responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”

Abbott said the county judges for counties located in one of the Trauma Service Areas (TSAs) where COVID-19 hospitalizations are less than 15 percent of hospital capacity can authorize reopening bars and similar establishments at 50 percent capacity. COVID-19 hospitalizations in TSA O, which includes Burnet and Llano counties, was down to 2.9 percent of capacity.

However, certain protocols still must be followed if bars are allowed to reopen, Abbott said.

“As recommended by trade associations representing bars, dance floors at bars and similar establishments must remain closed,” Abbott said. “Consistent with protocols for restaurants, all patrons must be seated while eating or drinking (with limited exceptions for sampling at breweries, distilleries, and wineries), and must wear masks when they are not seated at a table. Additionally, tables must be limited to six individuals or less and all establishments must follow specific curfew guidelines.”

Abbott also said beginning Oct. 14, counties in TSAs where COVID-19 hospitalizations are less than 15 percent of total hospital capacity can allow businesses other than bars to increase their occupancy level to 75 percent.

Burnet County Judge James Oakley said he was not contacted by the governor’s office prior to the announcement regarding bar reopenings being made.

“It is my understanding from speaking with our Local Health Authority that Burnet County is well below the threshold of capacity in our hospitals as outlined within the order,” Oakley said. “Only one of the municipalities in Burnet County has ‘bars,’ that being the City of Marble Falls.

“I spoke this afternoon (Wednesday) with the mayor, who indicated to me that he was in favor of opening those establishments as allowed by the new order. Therefore, it will be my intention to take the steps necessary to do just that.”

Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham announced late Monday, Oct. 12, that Llano County would be following suit.

“After consultation with the Llano County Local Health Authority, Llano County Sheriff Bill Blackburn, and the mayors of Llano and Horseshoe Bay, Llano County will allow bars or similar establishments to operate with in-person service, provided that the businesses follow recommended minimum standard health protocols,” Cunningham said.

“It is important citizens and visitors of Llano County understand that opening bars and similar establishments does not mean that COVID-19 is no longer a threat. We continue to urge all those who live and visit Llano County to remain vigilant and show personal responsibility to protect themselves and our community members.”

Cunningham said COVID-19 safety protocols at bars “will be enforced through spot-checks by law enforcement. If an establishment is not following the protocols established by Governor Abbott, it will be closed by the County Judge until further notice.”

Abbott’s announcement was met with guarded optimism as bar owners study the new requirements they will face in order to reopen.

However, Michael Klein, president of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance president, chastised the governor for not taking more definitive action, saying, “Texas bars and nightclubs are now the official scapegoat of the pandemic.”

“We are extremely shocked by the announcement made today. When other governors around the country, like Ron DeSantis, continue to lead and set a course for economic and social recovery for their states, today our governor punted,” Klein said. “TBNA is under no delusions: many of our members will eventually be allowed to operate under this new order because their county judge will lead and ‘opt in’. However, this is a death sentence for so many of our members under the jurisdiction of county judges who still believe that we should be locked down like we were in March and April, despite all the progress we’ve made coexisting with this virus.

“The truth is we remain closed until someone else makes the decision to open us up based on whatever parameters they deem appropriate — data, politics, personal animus, you name it. Abbott has forced 254 other people to make this decision for him with no guideposts as to how to make that decision. He’s officially passed the buck. No other sector of the Texas economy is being handled this way, even similar businesses such as restaurants or bingo halls. Bars are being singled out.”