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The empty barroom at Shoals Sound and Service
Shoals Sound and Service

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Despite Major Rule Changes, Dallas Bars Are Still in Crisis

Texas’s ham-fisted handling of bar shutdowns has put some of the city’s best watering holes in serious jeopardy

Ever since March 16, when Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson ordered all bars and restaurants across the city to close their doors to stem the spread of coronavirus, iconic Deep Ellum bar Double Wide has sat empty. Which means that owner Kim Finch, who also operates the Single Wide bar on Greenville Avenue, has missed out on untold sums of revenue while still forking over money to pay insurance, rent, and bills.

But that could all change soon, thanks to a new waiver issued by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC), which would allow bars that don’t have kitchens to sell prepackaged food or partner with food trucks in order to hit the 51 percent target of revenue that a food and beverage license requires. It’s just the latest in a series of waivers issued by the agency to help bars during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many owners in Dallas say these moves just aren’t enough.

Back in March, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a waiver that would allow establishments to sell to-go cocktails for the first time in Texas history, but that only applied to restaurants. Then, the TABC announced that bars could sell cocktails to go, but only if they were served alongside food that was prepared in an on-site commercial kitchen. That meant that bars like Double Wide that don’t have their own kitchens have been forced to shutter entirely, with no end in sight.

“I’m just a little pissed right now,” Finch tells Eater. “For us to open, we still have to pay and wait for a new permit and figure out how to serve food, both of which will cost us money. We have to retrain staff again, and possibly hire new people, and they’re hard to find right now. It’s not as easy as they’re making it sound. We can’t just swing the doors open tomorrow.”

Blue-painted boards over restaurant windows painted with messages in support of Black Lives Matter protests.
Double Wide’s boarded-up windows
Double Wide/Facebook

For bars that have never served food before, a challenge awaits. Even though they’re able to sell prepackaged food, there is still equipment and packaging to buy and safe food handling to implement — all of which cost money. Finch is also skeptical that she’d be able to convince a food truck operator to park outside of her bar from open until close. “It is not realistic to have a food truck sit at [Double Wide and Single Wide] from open to close every day,” Finch says. “No truck will make enough money to do that.”

Like the Double Wide, Deep Ellum Distillery has been shuttered for months. Now, its proprietors are trying to figure out how to reopen as soon as possible under the new guidelines. “We don’t have a kitchen or anything like that, so we’re going to have to figure out how to make it work,” says general manager Aaron Wang. Currently, the distillery is planning to partner with local food trucks, like The Colony’s Barrel and Bones and Basic Taco, to serve food.

The lack of a plan for distilleries is especially galling considering that, at the beginning of the crisis, the state of Texas pleaded with distillers to shift their production lines to make hand sanitizer during product shortages. “It’s just crazy to me. The state asked us for help, and we did that on our own dime. We gave free hand sanitizer to the city of Dallas, to hospitals, to first responders,” Wang says. “It cost us thousands and thousands of dollars to make hand sanitizer, and we’ve been closed for months.”

two bottles of vodka and a bottle of hand sanitizer sit on an outdoor table.
Bottles of Deep Ellum vodka and hand sanitizer
Deep Ellum Distillery

For Finch, the waiver feels especially galling considering that Abbott has been in negotiations with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to figure out a plan that would allow fans inside AT&T Stadium during the NFL season. According to Abbott’s Open Texas plan, sporting events are currently allowed to fill 50 percent of their venues, which could mean something like 40,000 people cramming into AT&T Stadium on Sundays.

Even before this latest waiver, some Dallas bars, like Shoals Sound and Service, began implementing plans to reopen as restaurants, but that’s also meant navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the TABC and other agencies that govern the operations of bars and restaurants. Shoals owner Omar Yeefoon sent in the affidavit and other necessary paperwork to the TABC over a week ago, and is still waiting to hear back from the agency.

“The public sees moves like this and thinks they’re actually stepping in to help, but they’re not,” Yeefoon says. “It’s one bureaucracy making one judgment, then it’s another bureaucracy making another judgment. Sometimes they’re contradictory. How do we even know how to proceed? We need definitive answers, and we need to stop having to jump through hoops to maybe make ends meet.”

For many bars, this latest waiver isn’t really a lifeline — it’s too little, too late. Throughout the past five months, several of the city’s long-standing drinking destinations, like iconic Deep Ellum goth club Lizard Lounge and Addison’s Mercy Wine Bar, have permanently closed their doors. Without some kind of relief beyond opening at limited capacity, it’s likely that many of Dallas’s favorite bars will meet a similar fate.

“We’re about to see something in this industry like you would not believe. When the boards come off the windows and people start leaving their homes this fall, they’re going to see the aftermath of their favorite restaurants and bars closing,” Yeefoon says. “The ones that will be open will be limping and doing a completely different business than before just to survive.”

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