While the mayor of Houston is busy building his Wall of Shame to retaliate against business owners who fail to comply with Governor Abbott’s orders to mitigate the current spike in coronavirus cases in Texas, business owners are banding together to fight against re-closing. Are bars being unfairly singled out?
Governor Abbott reversed the re-opening of bars last week and the bar owners are left with closing their businesses and laying off employees all over again. Abbott now, in hindsight, regrets allowing bars to re-open during Phase Three of the state’s plan to jumpstart the Texas economy. Abbott’s not alone – other governors are doing the same in states showing an increase in positive test results. Bars are singled out as a large contributing factor in the spread of the coronavirus.
Two dozen bar owners and private citizens have banded together and signed on to a lawsuit. They demand that Governor Abbott and the state allow bars to remain open. The lawsuit claims Abbott’s emergency order that shut down the bars is unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed Monday in Travis County (Austin). There is a twist here – the attorney is Jared Woodfill, the former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. This is some red-on-red fighting. Woodfill is representing hundreds of plaintiffs in another lawsuit challenging the governor’s earlier executive orders. He says Abbott is acting “like a king” and choosing winners and losers as he shuts down businesses.
“Gov. Abbott continues to act like a king, refusing to convene the Legislature to address his unconstitutional orders,” said Woodfill, a former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. “Abbott is unilaterally destroying our economy and trampling our constitutional rights.”
Abbott has allowed hair and nail salons, barber shops, tattoo studios and piercing studios to reopen, even though “bar owners have less interaction, proximity, or frequency with patrons than beauticians, or cosmetologists, or tattoo artists,” the lawsuit says.
Unless Abbott and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission are stopped, the rights of state business owners could be similarly trampled in future pandemics, the lawsuit says.
“Will we allow defendants to set precedent for future governmental remedies related to viruses or diseases?” the lawsuit says. “Will we continue to allow defendants to take away our liberties and destroy the economy – where does it stop?”
The lawsuit came as the Alcoholic Beverage Commission announced Monday that seven bar licenses had been suspended for 30 days for opening in violation of Abbott’s order, including the Park at the Domain in Austin and Black Stone USA in Fredericksburg.
Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents visited about 1500 bars last weekend. Of those, 59 were open and 52 agreed immediately to close. The seven bars that refused to close had their license suspended.
Woodfill points to the fact that the governor overstepped his authority by suspending state laws, which is a power reserved for the state legislature. “Governor Abbott has chosen to sentence bar owners to bankruptcy.” The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, Tee Allen Parker, says her bar isn’t the problem. The 45-year-old owner of the Machine Shed Bar & Grill said she did all that was asked of business owners during the initial shutdown when the coronavirus first began to spread in Texas. She closed the bar, sent employees home but continued to pay them, made her own hand sanitizer, and sold face masks. She doesn’t wear a mask herself and has now banned them from her bar in the East Texas town of Kilgore. Parker says she is unfairly being scapegoated. Why are large public events being allowed to take place – protests, memorials, and the funeral for George Floyd in Houston, church services, and the like yet her bar is told to close?
“You can’t tell me that my tiny little bar is the problem. He’s the problem,” she said of Abbott in an interview with The Washington Post. “He’s targeting us, and it’s discrimination.”
She has a point – unlike larger clubs and bars, her bar only has about 100 seats and the chairs have been arranged so that social distancing is in place. It doesn’t sound like people are packing in the place and disregarding mitigation precautions. Parker said she once supported Abbott but he has moved to quickly and been too inconsistent in his decision-making on closing businesses.
So far, Woodfill has sued Governor Abbott six times over virus-related restrictions. The lawsuits have ranged from face mask mandates to church services.
Abbott’s emergency orders have repeatedly cited a 1975 state law that gives his office special powers during disasters — which, until this year, have mostly consisted of hurricanes and tornadoes. But according to the state constitution, only the Texas legislature has the ability to suspend laws in the middle of the pandemic, he said.
The governor can also call state legislators to Austin and ask them to draft up Texas’s response to the virus, Woodfill said, but Abbott has also refused to do so.
“It’s just been a horde of infringement on people’s individual liberties and constitutional rights in the form of executive orders,” he added. “This is one individual making draconian decisions that have destroyed the Texas economy.”
Woodfill said he is hoping the Texas Supreme Court will take up all the pandemic-related lawsuits collectively, setting a legal precedent for what the governor might do in the case of another viral outbreak.
Parker is staying active in this matter. She organized a “Bar Lives Matter” concert outside her bar on Sunday to raise money for other bars to pay their bills. She plans to rally with other bar owners today outside the Texas Capitol and has asked to speak with Governor Abbott one-on-one.