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San Antonio Bars, Restaurants Prepare For One Month Closure, Unemployment Spike

Jolene Almendarez
Texas Public Radio
Joseph Sanchez, a cook at Sam's Burger Joint, texts his mom to tell her the news after the city announced all bars and restaurants will be limited to take-out, drive thru, and delivery for a week beginning at midnight.

Update: Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on Thursday, March 19 to temporarily close all schools, bars, restaurants and gyms in Texas. This limits food service to takeout and delivery orders only amid COVID-19 concerns. 

San Antonio and Bexar County's respective declarations were issued on Wednesday, March 18.

At a bar still decked in St. Patrick’s Day decorations, bartenders were preparing for the worst early Wednesday morning. In what they called a Titanic party, they were prepared to go down with the proverbial service industry ship. 

“Yeah, I assumed it was coming...it’s unfortunate. There are so many people in the service industry. This affects so many people,” Tara Gass, a bartender of 14 years, said.

She and her co-worker Eric Duron opened the doors of the Stout House in Stone Oak five hours early Wednesday to make some extra cash. They thought the county was going to announce the closure of bars and limitation of restaurant services at a 9:30 a.m. news conference, but they dodged the bullet for a few more hours.

Credit Jolene Almendarez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Tara Gass, a bartender at Stout House in Stone Oak, calls a manager for help while trying to play audio from the TVs on the sound system. She and a handful of other people arrived at the bar more than five hours early to watch a Bexar County press conference in hopes of hearing whether bars will stay open.

Almost one in seven people in San Antonio work in the hospitality industry and about 100,800 of those people work in restaurants or bars. Many of those people, who work primarily for tips, are now out of a job for at least a week. 

Mayor Ron Nirenberg issued a new public health emergency declaration over the spread of COVID-19 early Wednesday evening. 

Restaurants within San Antonio city limits are now required to close dining rooms and only offer take-out, drive-thru or delivery. Other businesses, like bars, must close. The order lasts for seven days but the San Antonio City Council is meeting Thursday morning to potentially extend the order for 30 days.

The decision will leave hospitality employees, many of whom earn primarily tips, without work. Nirenberg said it was not an easy decision to go this route.

“Those folks are keeping me up all night, that’s why this is very hard, because these are real lives we are talking about and so we don’t want to measure irrationally or politically, we’ve got to do it when the data requires it.”

By late Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Bexar County had more than doubled again to 25 — up from 11 cases on Tuesday night.

The new regulations close bars, gyms, bingo parlors, bowling alleys, health studios, commercial amusements businesses, and other non-essentials businesses beginning at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. Several businesses are exempted from closing including grocery stories, pharmacies, hotels, offices spaces, and retail businesses. 

For an industry that was already hurting with slowed business, it was not welcome news. 

At Sam’s Burger Joint, two front of house employees and two cooks watched the announcement from the mayor live. 

Credit Jolene Almendarez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Jazlin Knopf and Sarah Crawford watch a press conference Wednesday afternoon where Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced all restaurants and bars will be closed for seven days in an effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus.

“My mom said this was something she would never believe would happen in her lifetime. And I was like, ‘Mom, it’s not that big of a deal.’ And now they’re just shutting down everything,” said Sarah Crawford, a bartender and cashier at the restaurant. 

Jazlin Knopf was with Crawford when the news was announced. She said she’ll probably just find a new job somewhere or dip into her savings if she needs more cash. 

“I already have money saved up. I have extra money but that's supposed to be for school so that kinda sucks,” Knopf said.  

Across town at the BLVD Bar & Lounge, Brad Vehrs prepared for his second job loss of the week. Over the weekend, he was informed via Facebook messenger that the A Lounge would be closed throughout the pandemic. A friend of his was able to land him a shift at the BLVD on Wednesday night. He found out about the city-wide bar closure a few hours before his shift when his friend from the Stout House, Eric Duron, called to let him know. 

“I knew that San Antonio was coming but I was hoping we could at least get through one more week — save up a little bit more money and do something with it,” he said. “My first reaction was...Everybody is so f----- right now — all my friends. I have a friend that messaged me and said, ‘My apartment told me rent is due on the first .’ And he has no money for rent.”  

He thinks the closures are going to last for weeks and it would make sense if the city followed Austin’s lead and closed bars until May 1.

Vehrs recently moved in with his grandmother and worries about her wellbeing. But he’s torn on the issue of whether bars should close.

“I care about my money and I care about the livelihood of everybody that's in this industry," he said. "And then at the same time, I care about people like my grandma and...I think everything should be shut down, too.” 

Vehrs said he’ll probably look into getting a job in construction soon. He knows a few people who make decks who might need a hand. Crawford, the bartender at Sam’s Burger Joint, and Gass, from Stout House, said they’re not sure what they’ll do yet. 

“I have no idea. That’s what’s really happening right now. Nobody really knows what they’re going to do, so we’re trying to just not worry too much about the future since we have no control over it...I guess we’ll try to figure that out later if there’s any way to,” Gass said. 

Credit Dominic Anthony / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Mayor Ron Nirenberg addresses the public at a press conference on March 16.

As calls to encourage people to avoid mass social gatherings increased, the mayor also asked that people only travel outside their homes between 10:00 p.m. and the morning hours if it’s absolutely necessary for things like work.

“What we’re asking folks to do is keep in mind that we have firefighters, medical professionals, police officers, people who are responding to emergencies that need to have the best cooperation from the public and the spread of this disease is best prevented by staying home.” 

Nirenberg’s order only applies to the City of San Antonio. It does not affect surrounding suburban cities like Alamo Heights, Windcrest or the unincorporated portions of Bexar County

Unlike the city, Bexar County is taking a different approach. 

“Well right now, my disaster declaration states that we're going to follow the CDC rules,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

The county’s order, which was approved by the commissioner's court before Nirenberg’s most recent order, allows non-essential establishments to remain open with social distancing measures in place. 

The county’s public health order cuts in half the maximum seating occupancy in restaurants and requires tables to be at least six feet apart. It also doesn’t allow dining parties bigger than six people. 

On Wednesday night, Governor Greg Abbott waived regulations allowing restaurants with mixed-beverage licenses to deliver alcoholic beverages with food orders. The waiver also allows alcohol distributors and manufacturers to buy-back unopened alcohol products from restaurants, bars, and clubs. 

Abbot said, in a news release, the waivers are in response to the financial hardship caused by COVID-19. 

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules
Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony