“I will not have income after Friday,” says Barnaby’s Café general manager Anna Marquer, in tears. “We know why it has to be done, but it’s so sad. I’ve worked here for 20 years. We’re hopeful that we’ll be back, but with small businesses being shut down, you just don’t know.”
Harris County and the City of Houston shut down all bars and in-restaurant dining the day before St. Patrick’s Day. Following a nationwide effort to contain the coronavirus (COVID-19), restaurants can only stay open for take-out and delivery orders. The Harris County ban lasts at least until March 31.
While this will be a devastating blow to the local economy and the hospitality industry here (according to Visit Houston, there are 10,000 restaurants in the Houston area, contributing billions to the local economy), the collateral damage is to the workers, hourly wage earners who rely on tips, and bar entertainers—all people who likely have no health insurance and no savings to tide them over for the minimum of three weeks. According to the Texas Restaurant Association, there are roughly 300,000 restaurant workers in Texas, and one million jobs could be lost across the state in the coming weeks as the ripple effect hits farmers, truckers, and suppliers.
Pearl Bar owner Julie Mabry shut down her popular Washington Avenue LGBTQ bar hours before the announcement from County Commissioner Lina Hidalgo. Posting on Facebook, Mabry wrote that she could not live with the idea that someone had caught the virus there. She then posted pictures of her staff with their Venmo handles, and encouraged patrons to send them tips during the coming weeks. One resource for the bar community is the USBG Charity Foundation (usbgfoundation.org/covid-19-response) where workers can find information and grant applications.
But for performers like the drag group H-Town Kings, the bar closings will hit even harder. Artists affected by COVID-19 can apply for government aid through the Houston Arts Alliance.
City Council Representative Abbie Kamin, whose District C has many bars and restaurants, is watching the situation closely. “Our district will be tremendously impacted,” Kamin says. “Our office is working closely with the LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce and other businesses to see how best to serve the people impacted.” She also says the mayor is creating a City Council ad hoc committee to address the COVID-19 crisis, and she expects to be involved in that.
“I have no doubt Houston will come together to face this,” she says.
One great resource for Houston’s bar and restaurant industry during hard times is the Southern Smoke Foundation (southernsmoke.org). Local celebrity chef Chris Shepherd started the nonprofit in 2015 to raise funds for MS, but switched the focus to hospitality-industry aid in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey. That year, the organization donated $501,000 to 139 individuals affected by the storm.
“This will be worse than Harvey,” says Executive Director Kathryn Lott. Even worse, the nonprofit had to cancel its own annual Southern Smoke spring event due to the COVID-19 threat. The event was expected to raise $200,000.
“But we’re still pretty healthy, we have some reserves, and we are boldly asking for donations through social media,” Lott says. “I also want to do some kind of online raffle or auction so people can have a little fun donating.
“Part of the problem is, we don’t know how long this will last, or what the long-term damage will be. I think restaurants should get bailouts. [Financial aid] shouldn’t be just for banks.”
She also thinks that landlords should be forgiving, and while Governor Greg Abbott did not call for a statewide ban on bars and restaurants, he has asked for mortgage and rent forgiveness during this crisis.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has said there will be no water cutoffs during the crisis, and Reliant has said the same about electricity cutoffs. But that doesn’t allay the fears of industry staffers. “As a 61-year-old waiter on day-to-day tips who lives alone, not being able to work (and not knowing for how long) is taking a mental toll worse than any disease,” says Michael Foster, a longtime employee of Bollo Woodfired Pizza.