Central Texas county judges react to Gov. Abbott allowing bars to reopen


AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott announced bars in areas where COVID-19 hospitalizations are low will be able to reopen at 50% capacity. County judges have to agree to it first, though. They can start opting in as soon as Oct. 14.

KXAN reached out judges across Central Texas to see if they’re on board with reopening bars.

In favor of reopening bars

Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell said he wants to be the first judge in all of Texas to reopen bars.

“It is time for all of our businesses to be open to serve our public while following the Governor’s health protocols to be safe,” Gravell said in a statement. “Our county residents have shown that they can be smart and protect themselves and others, so I will be choosing for Williamson County to opt in on October 14.”

Burnet County Judge James Oakley said only one city in the county has bars—the City of Marble Falls. He said he spoke with the mayor, and they plan to move forward with reopening.

“Only one of the municipalities in Burnet County has ‘bars,’ that being the City of Marble Falls. I spoke with the Mayor this afternoon who indicated to me that he was in favor of opening those establishments as allowed by the new order. Therefore, it will be my intention to take the steps necessary to do just that,” Oakley said in a statement.

Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape wasn’t a fan of how Gov. Abbott rolled out his plan without consulting judges first Wednesday, but on Thursday, the judge said yes to reopening bars.

“After consulting with the Mayors and Local Health Authority, Judge Pape will be authorizing bars in Bastrop County to reopen at 50% capacity, beginning Oct. 14, under the strict guidelines published by Governor Abbott on Oct. 7,” a statement from the county said. 

Fayette County Judge Joe Weber said he applauds the governor’s decision.

“Fayette County is opting in on reopening the bars! We applaud the Governor’s decision to allow this, and I thank him for his trust and confidence in the County Judges to work within their counties to accomplish this reopening in a safe and healthy manner,” Weber said in a statement. “I would like to reiterate one very important thing that our Governor said: this virus continues to be a very serious and a highly contagious disease. We must remain most conscious of this as we work toward returning to normalcy.”

An announcement from Caldwell County sent Friday says County Judge Hoppy Haden has elected to reopen bars and similar businesses starting Oct. 14, “provided that the businesses follow the recommended minimum standard health protocols.”

On Wednesday, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra said he wanted to meet with local officials to ensure the right decision is made. By Friday, Becerra announced he will allow bars to reopen under the new order.

“Our health department team said they would support the reopening if bar owners and patrons are able to continue making safety a priority,” Becerra said in a statement.

Llano County posted on Facebook Monday, announcing Judge Ron Cunningham will opt in and allow bars to reopen, given that they’d follow the required safety precautions.

Need more time

Some county judges in our area said they simply need more time to look over the order and consult with local public health officials.

On behalf of Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, Public Information Officer Hector Nieto said Biscoe will be taking time to look over the order and consult with Austin-Travis County health authorities.

“Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe intends to take the next several days to speak with the County Attorney’s office and determine what authority has finally been returned to local governments based on Governor Abbott’s announcement.”

Opposed to reopening bars

So far, there aren’t any county judges who’ve said they oppose reopening bars at this time.

Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden said parts of the new order don’t really apply to them.

“We don’t have any bars, only two restaurants with a bar,” Bearden said in a statement.

KXAN is still awaiting responses from county judges in the area and will update this story when those responses are received.

TBNA responds

After the announcement, Michael Klein, Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) president, said Texas bars and nightclubs are now the official scapegoat of the pandemic.

“We are extremely shocked by the announcement made today. When other governors around the country, like Ron DeSantis, continue to lead and set a course for economic and social recovery for their states, today our governor punted,” Klein said.

TBNA said many of its members will eventually be allowed to operate under this new order, because their county judge will lead and ‘opt in’. However, the organization feels it is a death sentence for many members under the jurisdiction of county judges who don’t agree with the governor.

“Today there was no such data driven approach. No basic premise in the announcement that we are now open. The truth is, we remain closed until someone else makes the decision to open us up based on whatever parameters they deem appropriate—data, politics, personal animus, you name it,” Klein said. 

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it is working with county governments and alcoholic beverage industry members to ensure the safe reopening of thousands of Texas bars and clubs beginning Oct. 14.

“We greatly appreciate the trust Governor Abbott has placed in the alcoholic beverage industry. The Governor’s plan offers a path for county judges to reopen multiple business types in their counties, including bars, breweries, distilleries and more. We’re grateful to all of the industry members who have put safety first since the pandemic began. I know countless Texans have eagerly awaited this day.”

Executive Director Bentley Nettles, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission

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