Bars ready for customers to enjoy night out on the town

Southwinds Lounge in Brownsville officially reopen their bar doors after a two-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brownsville’s bars opened on Friday. The move is latest in a series of restriction lifted by Governor Greg Abbott in an attempt to kick start the Texas economy and some feel the decision to re-open is happening too soon. Local bar owners are taking a variety of approaches to ensure the safety of customers and staff.

Abbott’s guidelines allowed bars to open at 25 percent capacity. This followed the partial re-opening of restaurants at 25 percent; those restaurants were allowed on Friday to begin serving customers at 50 percent capacity.

This is the case at The Library at La Rioja, which according to owner Dacey Garza had been closed since St. Patrick’s Day. Garza bartends and is excited to expand capacity, currently set at around 17 people. On Friday, The Library was to allow 35 guests inside. Garza said she’s been lucky.

“We haven’t had anybody wait outside; we’ve seen the regular amount of customers or a little under — our regulars coming to visit us,” said Garza.

When shelter in place went into effect, the business switched to curbside service and began selling frozen drinks to go. Staff is limited and each employee has a full-time job, so they’ve fared ok through the pandemic.

“We’re very grateful for that. People are eager to come out drinking, see friends again. Of course, we’re taking precautions and wearing face masks,” Garza said.

Staff is asking customers not to gather or walk around to socialize and table spaces have been properly distanced. “Just sit at the table, chill, relax, eat your food, drink, and maybe play some cards,” she added.

At Kraken Lounge, Owner Dannie Alvarado said he’s been closed almost two months. Payments kept coming in and since Kraken is his only source of income, things have been tough.

“I do think it was for the best to close shop since COVID-19 cases were still spiking up at the time,” he said this week.

Alvarado will open up shop on Monday. He organizes events promoting local services, artists, and businesses. His space is a hub for Brownsville’s creative community, who regularly book gigs or display art on the walls. Alvarado added, “I’m sure a lot of businesses are hurting and are on the verge of closing. I’ve talked to several business owners and employees and everybody is excited to re-open.”

Kathy Jennings has owned Southwinds Lounge for 37 years and is proud of her career but worries the restrictions will continue to hurt business.

“I’m the only woman in Brownsville that’s been in business this long in a bar. I hope I can continue being proud one day if we can get caught up on everything. We’re in full force,” Jennings said.

The pandemic hit Southwinds hard. Jennings used her resources trying to keep her head above water but is sliding into debt with no income for several months, a high rent still due, and other bills coming in. She applied for small business assistance but hasn’t heard back. Her staff of four bartenders and cocktail waitresses will be outfitted in masks and gloves and ready to work the weekend.

“My employees went in and they scrubbed down all the walls, tables, flooring, and everything. We’re going to have a table at the front door where I have hand sanitizer. After people leave, they sanitize the tables,” said Jennings.

Though re-opening at 25 percent capacity will help a little, Jennings suspects it won’t help a lot. Bars pay on average 15 percent to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission on top of state taxes, which amount to 15 percent off the top of gross sales.

“It’s going to be no more than 25 people at a time. It’s going to be tough.”

Staff at Toucan Lounge is working around its 40-person limit by opening a new, expansive outdoor patio previously closed to the public. Owner Andrew Lopez emphasized the precautions his staff is taking to ensure customers know what expectations are.

“A lot of our business is word of mouth. If someone spreads the wrong information, that can be harmful to all of us. We’re going to try to do what the governor says and follow those guidelines — and tell everybody what they are as they walk in here,” he said.

Lopez closed the bar and would not allow anyone inside for safety reasons when the pandemic hit. He worked alone, rotating shifts with his manager to get things done. Lopez was able to survive with the help of his landlord, who didn’t ask for rent under shelter in place. His employees were to be returning to work on Friday.

Manager Xenia Fernandez said, “Everyday we get phone calls and messages. ‘Are you guys open yet? When are you guys opening? We can’t wait! We want to go!’ For me and the girls, of course, it was a big cut of money. We work for tips and so the girls are suffering. But, we’re ready to start on Friday and we’re excited.”

Staff on Wednesday did maintenance work at Toucan in preparation for the weekend. “The last two weeks we’ve been going crazy, getting nervous — butterflies, like we’re opening a new business,” Lopez said.

Not every bar in town is ready to open, however. Las Ramblas at Market Square, a popular downtown-based cocktail bar co-owned by Michael J. Limas and his brother, will remain closed for now. Limas said that isn’t changing anytime soon but encouraged customers to stay up to date with the latest services and developments through the bar’s website and Facebook page.

“Cocktail bars are very intimate and close. Social distancing can be a challenge because we’re 1,200 square feet. Then, in terms of what we can actually provide clientele — it’s going to be a very restrictive,” said Limas of the decision.

Like other owners, he suspects that 25 percent capacity won’t bring in enough revenue to justify keeping the building open. Las Ramblas was one of the very first establishments in Brownsville to shut down due to the virus and opted to furlough staff so they could take advantage of federal benefits. The owners continue to take precautions.

“We’re really in line with safety first,” Limas said. “We’re the ones who closed when no one else was closing because we wanted to make sure our staff and patrons are safe. That still holds true to this day.”

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com