McALLEN — There was a little front rolling through downtown McAllen just after midnight Friday morning, with wind and a few raindrops and the smell of precipitation.
There were few people downtown; only a handful on 17th Street, McAllen’s usually lively bar district. On any other night there would be loud music and laughing, women in skirts and men in tight-fitting shirts strutting along the sidewalk.
Some of the marquees still glittered, reflecting off windows and the windshields of police cars; others were turned off, and no one’s quite sure when they’ll turn on again.
The few people on 17th consisted of some police officers and one sole bouncer. The cops looked exceptionally bored; one of them talked to a couple of others about his yard.
The bouncer paced outside the street’s only open club, smoking a cigarette and looking angry.
At several of the bars, there’s an ominous, official-looking manila envelope tucked into the door handle or shoved into a mail slot. I’m not sure what’s in those envelopes, but it’s likely not good news.
On Thursday afternoon, Hidalgo County and the city of McAllen ordered all bars and clubs in their jurisdiction to cease operations to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus; it looks like the bars will be complying.
They don’t have much choice in the matter.
“It’s like the Twilight Zone,” said Melody Faraji, one of downtown’s many bartenders. “We’re in it. One of those ones where everyone disappears.”
The Gremlin, along with that other lonely club, were the only places open, albeit barely. Establishments with a kitchen, like The Gremlin, can keep operating in a strictly to-go capacity.
Instead of music and a crowd at The Gremlin on Thursday night, it was just the bartenders and kitchen staff sitting in the meticulously sanitized pub watching, ironically, The Twilight Zone.
“It’s weird, it’s super weird what’s happening,” Tony Reyna, one of the bar’s co-owners said.
Reyna said in the seven years he’s been familiar with the downtown McAllen entertainment scene, he’s never seen a Thursday night quite like this one. Some nights the weather keeps people off the streets, he said, but seldom away from the bars.
“Even then, when it’s super cold or freezing, there’s still people out,” he said. “At midnight, it feels like three or four in the morning.”
Reyna says he expected the closure and took steps to prepare for it
“We proactively tried to get ahead of the curve. Doing curbside, we’re doing deliveries now. When we first started, that was maybe in the way-future, but it came so fast, so you just have to evolve with it, go downstream with it and see what happens until the last minute, if we have some sort of curfew or lockdown or quarantine,” he said.
Because of its business model, Reyna’s bar is in a better position than some of the other joints downtown. They can do to-go food and even to-go drinks, which was legalized by Gov. Greg Abbott Wednesday in response to the impending service industry shutdown.
“We went to growlers, beers to go,” Reyna said. “Whatever they want.”
Gearing up for a fully to-go model isn’t easy, but Reyna said the internet, word of mouth and a lot of hard work made it possible.
“The evolution of how we’re able to weather this was, ‘We’re doing delivery today.’ We just turned it on,” he said. “We’re just going along with it, pushing ourselves harder to adapt.”
The Gremlin is one of many locally owned Valley establishments rolling out curbside options as fast as it can. The Monitor is keeping a running list of those restaurants on its website.
Other bars across the Valley don’t have that option; they’ll be closing their doors, crossing their fingers and watching the days pass by with no firm idea of when they may be able to open again.
“It’s serious, it’s super serious,” Reyna said. “What can you weather? How many days can you stop, and then just come back? And then hopefully your staff is in the same boat with you, because they have families. There’s a lot of variables, too many.”
The challenge for establishments that are staying open in a to-go capacity is hardly any easier.
“Our next big hurdle is where we’re going to get supplies,” Alyssa Cantu, chef and Gremlin co-owner said. “Hopefully we’re not going to run out of paper goods, sanitizers, stuff like that.”
Like everyone else in the Valley, the restaurant industry is struggling to get its hands on the bare necessities. Ingredients are hard to come by, Cantu said. What’s on the menu depends on what ingredients she can find and how creative she can get.
“We’re trying to keep it available as long as we can. Trying to keep our prices low, so it’s within reason and expectations,” Cantu said. “We’re just trying it out, it’s one big experiment.”