McALLEN — The bar staff at the Flying Walrus downtown here scrambled Friday evening to get ready to serve their first customers in two months.
Like many other bars in the Rio Grande Valley, the Flying Walrus is opening up after an order made by Governor Greg Abbott earlier this week.
James Alexander, the owner, says he and his staff spent most of the pandemic improving the facilities and working on projects. He says he didn’t expect to be open for another three weeks at least, and while he was hoping to start serving at 8 Friday evening he wasn’t sure his staff would be ready in time.
“They did that with what, five days notice?” Alexander said. “We’re a large bar, so it wasn’t easy to get going again.”
The Flying Walrus wasn’t the only joint opening up downtown Friday. Several bars were back in business, with bouncers taking up their old posts out front and barbacks carting in fresh cases of beer. Alexander said he wasn’t sure what sort of turnout he and the other bars would have would have Friday night.
“I’m expecting some kind of crowd, but I just don’t know,” he said
Although the announcement that bars could reopen surprised Alexander, he wasn’t necessarily opposed to it. April’s monthly unemployment tally for Texas was 12.8%, the worst in history. Alexander said the pandemic has hit the wallets of people in the service industry particularly hard.
“Nobody got hit harder than your bartenders and your waitstaff and your service industry people,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any chance that anybody was prepared to go without work for six weeks.”
Alexander also said he viewed the number of cases in McAllen as a reason to start opening the economy back up.
“Percentage-wise, there’s a really low percentage of cases in McAllen,” he said. “I think it’s geographic more than anything else. Certain places are going to have to remain closed, other ones are going to be able to start opening up. Trying to have some blanket idea of how to do it is just naive.”
Under the governor’s new orders, bars are subject to a variety of regulations and guidelines, including a 25% capacity limit and a requirement that no one sit at the actual bar. Alexander says his staff will be adhering to those guidelines as well as they can.
Only about 90 people will be let into the 7,000-square-foot bar. They’ll screen patrons at the door with a thermometer and barbacks will make rounds encouraging people to socialize less closely.
Alexander said he expects the regulations in the order to be enforced, but it shouldn’t be a problem.
“The regulations aren’t all that bad,” Alexander said.
Ultimately though, most of the guidelines in the order are strong suggestions rather than rules. Going to a bar is about socializing in close quarters, Alexander said, and socially distancing all of his patrons won’t be possible.
“The point of a bar is closeness, unfortunately,” he said. “At the end of the day, people are going to do what they want. You can’t beat them over the head with a stick.”
With a 450 person capacity, opening at 25% gave the Flying Walrus a large enough allowance of customers to make opening profitable, albeit by a small margin, Alexander said. Small bars with smaller capacities are more greatly impacted by the 25% rule, like Big River Brewery on Nolana in Pharr. Bertha Padilla, the brewery’s owner, says it’s simply not financially feasible to open her tasting room under the new orders.
“We wanted to open, but with the 25 its not feasible for us. Our occupancy is like 66 and we have 10 employees,” she said. “So the limit would be eight. It’s just not feasible for us.”
To make up for the loss in revenue, Big River has started selling beer curbside and making deliveries on the weekends. They’ve started releasing new beers on social media more regularly to boost sales and Padilla said selling their beer through H-E-B has helped them make it through the pandemic.
“The community has really helped us. They’ve come to purchase our beer, and we’ve done a lot of releases,” she said.
According to Padilla, Big River likely won’t open for drink-in customers until the regulations are completely lifted.
“We don’t even know if we’ll open at the 50. We’ll probably wait till 100,” she said. “We’re hoping that it’ll clear up soon so we can all get back to work.”