Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Wednesday announcing protocols to partially reopen bars to 50 percent capacity in qualifying counties beginning Oct. 14.
The order also increases the occupancy level to 75 percent for all business establishments other than bars in these counties.
Some argue the order is toothless because it relies on county judges to determine whether bars can reopen.
Most bars have been closed since late July after Abbott first issued an executive order allowing for an occupancy limit of 50 percent for restaurants and other indoor establishments in late June, and then later ordered all bars to be closed after spikes in COVID-19 cases were reported.
In July, Dallas-area attorney Jason Friedman filed a lawsuit, Stirr et al. v. Abbott, on behalf of several bar owners, in Dallas’ 68th Judicial District Court. The lawsuit argues the order is discriminatory and arbitrary because it targeted free-standing bars, not bars inside restaurants, hotels and stadiums.
If bar owners chose to stay open they could be prosecuted, have their license revoked, lose their business and face hefty fines.
Since July, state legislators have also repeatedly urged Abbott to reopen bars, arguing not doing so is permanently putting small business owners out of business.
The order issued Wednesday reopens bars and similar establishments to up to 50 percent occupancy in counties where COVID-19 hospitalizations are less than 15 percent of hospital capacity.
If a county judge does authorize their reopening, protocols outlined by the state in a 4-page document must be followed, according to the order.
Protocols include requiring dance floors at bars and similar establishments to remain closed, requiring all patrons to be seated while eating or drinking (with limited exceptions for sampling at breweries, distilleries, and wineries), requiring patrons to wear face coverings or masks when they are not seated at a table, limiting tables to six individuals or fewer, and following curfew guidelines.
“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,” Abbott said in a statement. “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,” Abbott added, saying that “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.”
The governor’s office also released a YouTube video with the order in which the governor encourages Texans to continue following best practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.