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Bars and breweries reopen in North Texas with relieved regulars, safety protocols and ... caution tape

Many spots take advantage of outdoor seating to create social distancing and stick to the 25% capacity rule.

Updated at 1 p.m. Saturday: Revised with new details from several establishments from early Friday morning and evening.

By 12:30 a.m. Friday, four dozen happy bar-goers were scattered among the outdoor picnic tables at Lee Harvey’s in the Cedars, from clusters of six to solo visitors sipping on Lone Star beers at the iconic Dallas dive, face masks slung around their necks.

Throughout the day, people reconnected with old friends and old haunts as Texas bars, wine tasting rooms and craft breweries were allowed to reopen as part of Phase 2 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reignite the state’s economy after the pandemic-driven shutdown, and Lee Harvey’s hadn’t waited a minute too long, unlocking its gates just after the stroke of midnight.

Andrew Kennedy of Allen was among the first to arrive, making the 35-minute drive to support what he called “one of the pride-and-joy dives of Dallas.”

Patrons enjoyed the outdoor seating area at Lee Harvey's in Dallas' Cedars neighborhood Friday.
Patrons enjoyed the outdoor seating area at Lee Harvey's in Dallas' Cedars neighborhood Friday.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

“I can’t tell you how much I wanted to be here,” said Kennedy, a manager at CVS, where, he said, staff go to work unsure of how many COVID-19 carriers they might interact with on a daily basis.

“I’ve worked in a petri dish every day for the last 11 years,” he said. “Coming to a place like this during a pandemic is no different than me going into work.”

The statewide reopening came with restrictions – sites could operate at only 25% capacity, with proper social distancing measures that included required seating and tableside service only and removing stools from bar counters to prevent people from loitering or congregating there.

A row of taped 'X' letters demarcated social distancing guidelines as Martin Herrera (left) of Justin watched a darts game with friends at Lee Harvey's in Dallas' Cedars neighborhood Friday night.
A row of taped 'X' letters demarcated social distancing guidelines as Martin Herrera (left) of Justin watched a darts game with friends at Lee Harvey's in Dallas' Cedars neighborhood Friday night.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

But while some bars attempted to adhere to state protocols with a jigger’s precision, others more or less free-styled their evening’s operations, spilling a mess of inconsistencies as bar owners and staff struggled to navigate state protocols and the whims of their clientele.

At Lee Harvey’s, tables had been repositioned and counters marked with X’s denoting where and where not to sit. Nonetheless, patrons played darts or queued up at the patio bar to order, mostly left to their own devices as far as masks or social distancing.

“This may be pushing it,” general manager Timm Zbylut said about the line, noting that staff had placed a row of short tables in front of the bar as a barrier against loitering. And besides, the bar’s outdoor setting might exempt it from that restriction, anyway; he wasn’t sure.

Lee Harvey's general manager Timm Zbylut said the tables arranged at the bar were there to prevent loitering.
Lee Harvey's general manager Timm Zbylut said the tables arranged at the bar were there to prevent loitering.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

“It may not be the letter of the law, but we’re trying,” Zbylut said.

Elsewhere, barstools remained in place – and largely occupied – at nightspots like Whitehall Exchange, Ten Bells Tavern and Blue Cenote Mexican Cantina in Bishop Arts, and Mike’s Gemini Twin in the Cedars.

Gemini Twin bar manager Chase Burns said staff had planned to follow the lead of their fiercely loyal patrons.

“Our plan was to mask up if a lot of people came in wearing masks,” Burns said. “If you’re at a bar, you know what you’re in for; you either know the risks or you don’t think they’re real. So far, everybody here seems to be on the same page.”

Some remain closed

Many bars had chosen not to reopen, such as Single Wide on Lower Greenville, Double Wide and Ruins in Deep Ellum and The Mitchell downtown.

“Slow & steady wins the race right!?” read a post on Single Wide’s Facebook page. “As much as we would love to see all those faces that we miss so much we will not be reopening the bar on Friday. We are working on how to deliver the Double Wide & Single Wide experience safely and effectively within the new bar guidelines and protocol.”

Devin McCullough, general manager at The People's Last Stand at Mockingbird Station, sanitizes a patio table. His mother made masks for patrons to use at the bar.
Devin McCullough, general manager at The People's Last Stand at Mockingbird Station, sanitizes a patio table. His mother made masks for patrons to use at the bar.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

Other places were ready to welcome back thirsty bar-goers, with precautions in place like hand sanitizer, disposable cups, additional outdoor seating and not allowing dancing or use of pool tables. At The People’s Last Stand, a cocktail bar at Mockingbird Station, face coverings sewed by general manager Devin McCullough’s mother were at the ready for customer use, with a giant Luxardo cherry can in which to deposit ones already used.

According to WFAA, undercover agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Dallas police and code enforcement staff planned to be out monitoring compliance with crowd capacity rules.

While the number of average daily COVID-19 cases this week fell, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins cautioned that without a 14-day decline, the area is still a “red zone” and urged people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. Local doctors have suggested that measures aren’t yet adequate to prevent a new surge of cases.

People's Last Stand customers were asked to put their used masks into this empty cherry can.
People's Last Stand customers were asked to put their used masks into this empty cherry can.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

That didn’t stop a handful of regulars from dropping into Time Out Tavern, a small sports bar on Lovers Lane where co-owner Aaron Saginaw was testing an offbeat idea aimed at letting patrons socialize without intermingling: He’d purchased a set of walkie-talkies that he placed on tables to allow chatting with other tables, or with bartenders, from a distance away.

A few hours in, their use had been sporadic at best. “I think it will make a bigger difference when we have groups that know each other,” Saginaw said.

Outside, a big sign detailed the protocols – masks at all times while upright, no service unless seated, no mixing among tables – and the dozen or so people inside, in three groups, were dispersed throughout the bar with room to spare.

“I’m trying to follow the guidelines as closely as I can,” Saginaw said. “It sucks. It’s not fun. It’s not in the spirit of what bars are all about. But at least people are able to get out and whoop and holler with their friends.”

In Arlington, a handful of mostly unmasked regulars had returned to Legal Draft Company, where indoor seating had been decreased and beer was served in single-use plastic cups. Signs on tables stated how many people could sit at each, and tables could not be moved together to accommodate larger groups.

Legal Draft Company in Arlington chose to reopen Friday, opting to use disposable cups for its beer.
Legal Draft Company in Arlington chose to reopen Friday, opting to use disposable cups for its beer.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

While the room was far from full, that was just what owner Greg McCarthy had hoped for in order to test the new protocols.

On Saturday, Legal Draft wasn’t too much busier. The brewery closed part of its taproom for a private event, and live music and great Memorial Day weather brought more beer drinkers to the patio. But it was far under the 200 to 300 customers McCarthy had predicted.

Regulars Jeff and Carmen Wittke had brought their golden retriever, Cota, on Friday to support the brewery, where they hosted their wedding rehearsal dinner last year.

“It’s exciting that they’re opening back up,” Jeff Wittke said, drinking a Nowhere But Texas lager. “As long as you can tell the place you’re going is taking precautions, it should be fine.”

Bartender Rae Huffstetter donned an Oklahoma State University-themed mask while drawing taps at Legal Draft Company.
Bartender Rae Huffstetter donned an Oklahoma State University-themed mask while drawing taps at Legal Draft Company.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Several miles away, at Mezcal Sports Bar and Grill, Liza Ruiz of Arlington had organized a happy hour for co-workers, who’ve been regulars since the place opened four years ago and were first in line when the bar opened at 5 p.m.

“We needed to reduce stress at a place where we felt comfortable,” Ruiz said. “You don’t want to just go anywhere.”

‘Glad to be back at it’

A bouncer at Mezcal’s front door checked patrons’ temperatures with a digital thermometer, giving each a spritz of hand sanitizer. Bar owner Roy Ramos was cautiously optimistic, curious about how a 25% occupancy limit of 60 customers would affect the club’s environment.

Operating partner Roy Ramos took the temperature of customers entering Mezcal Sports Bar and Grill in Arlington on Friday.
Operating partner Roy Ramos took the temperature of customers entering Mezcal Sports Bar and Grill in Arlington on Friday.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

“It’s a change for everybody,” he said. “I’d be happy if we make $1,000 tonight. We’re glad to be back at it.”

But on Saturday, Ramos said sales from the night before far exceeded expectations. By 10:30 p.m., he said, there was a line to get in. Even with the limited occupancy, the bar felt full because how tables were spread out.

Friends Israel Villa of Grand Prairie and D’andre Arnold of Red Oak were at the bar enjoying Modelo beer in plastic cups on Friday, happy to be out and tired of drinking at home.

“I’ve watched everything that’s on Netflix, everything that’s on Hulu,” Villa said with a laugh. “I miss taking an Uber home.”

Every other pool table at Mezcal Sports Bar and Grill was covered to help create social distancing.
Every other pool table at Mezcal Sports Bar and Grill was covered to help create social distancing.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

At the Cockpit, an aviation-themed dive bar near Love Field Airport where reopening festivities had started by 7 a.m., alternating tables were draped in yellow caution tape like a crime scene. So was the pool table. Throwing darts was off-limits, too.

Middle-aged regulars populated two of the bar’s five tables, and ’90s alternative rock blared from the CD jukebox. While face masks and hand sanitizer had been placed by the front door, none of the staff wore masks, and the few customers who did occasionally uncovered their mouths to have a drink.

“I’m not worried about it,” said bartender Stacy Gilbreath. “I can’t breathe with a mask and it fogs up my glasses.”

Yellow caution tape blocked off bar stools at Cockpit Bar in northwest Dallas on Friday.
Yellow caution tape blocked off bar stools at Cockpit Bar in northwest Dallas on Friday.(Jeremy Hallock)

Moments later, a man in a cowboy hat came in from the patio and asked Gilbreath for a beer at the bar.

“I’ll bring it to you,” she responded, and he walked away, visibly annoyed.

The back patio was busier, as a man who called himself “Cricket” grilled ribs and a dozen-plus patrons smoked and sipped beers at tables less than six feet apart, regarding as suspect anyone who chose to wear a mask.

By 7 p.m., Deep Ellum was starting to look like Deep Ellum again, with loud cars and motorcycles cruising the streets and the smell of weed in the air. But something was off, said Kelly Campbell, a waitress at Anvil Pub on Elm Street.

“It’s a completely different animal,” said Campbell, a bandanna covering her mouth. “Homebodies who normally wouldn’t come to a busy part of town on a Friday or Saturday night are coming out.

“We have been telling people that things are going to take a little longer, and they have been really understanding,” she said. “But we’ve had many happy hour regulars, and sitting at a table is so foreign to them. And seasoned bartenders are having to come out from behind the bar, so it’s a different kind of service.”

A table of customers in scrubs relaxed with drinks outdoors at Redfield's Tavern in Dallas' Medical District.
A table of customers in scrubs relaxed with drinks outdoors at Redfield's Tavern in Dallas' Medical District.(Jeremy Hallock)

At Redfield’s Tavern in the Medical District, groups of people mostly kept to themselves as musician John Pedigo prepared to perform on the giant patio stage.

“I’m cautious, but my wife’s take was, ‘Please don’t go,’” Pedigo said. “I haven’t played since February, though.”

As the state’s stay-at-home orders lapse and restrictions loosen, we’re left to make more decisions for ourselves. Bars are just the latest among several waves of reopenings that have included restaurants (allowed to operate now at 50% capacity), hair and nail salons, and gyms.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has urged a cautious approach to reopening Dallas County bars and other businesses.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has urged a cautious approach to reopening Dallas County bars and other businesses.(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)

“As more and more businesses open,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins recently tweeted, “we must focus not on what is legal but on what is safe as advised by the doctors.”

That’s especially a concern with bars, which by their nature are dense and not given to social distancing. Furthermore, the main attraction is a substance that can lower inhibitions and encourage risky behavior.

Venturing out: It’s a science

So why are some venturing out this weekend, while others are delaying happy hour? Researchers say there’s a science behind that decision-making — a cocktail, you might say, of genetics, personal experience and peer influence.

“Some people are just hard-wired to play it safe, while others are OK with potential risk,” said Scott Walters, a professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth who studies health behavior.

Reminders of the pandemic — masks, hand sanitizer, notes and signs — were plentiful at Legal Draft Company and elsewhere Friday.
Reminders of the pandemic — masks, hand sanitizer, notes and signs — were plentiful at Legal Draft Company and elsewhere Friday.(Tom Fox / TNS)

Our own experiences shape decisions too, experts say. Have you been really sick before? Do you have a relative who’s contracted COVID-19? You’re less likely to sidle up to the bar right now.

What other people do — especially our friends — also plays a big role. If your buddies plan to go out drinking, you’re more likely to go too.

“We are very influenced by our peers,” said psychiatry professor Vineeth John of UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School in Houston. John wonders if the pandemic and recent shelter-in-place orders have diminished that power. For the most part, he said, “Our peers have disappeared.”

The actions of peers can influence a person's decision on whether we do something like go out to drink, one expert says. If our friends decide to head to the bar, we might be more likely to do so too, he said.
The actions of peers can influence a person's decision on whether we do something like go out to drink, one expert says. If our friends decide to head to the bar, we might be more likely to do so too, he said.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

John believes the pandemic may promote more deliberate decision-making as opposed to quick, often subconscious choices based on feelings and intuition. We often make mistakes that way, he said.

Tiffany Radcliff, a health policy professor at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, said that with so much uncertainty and information circulating about COVID-19 and how it spreads, “our new normal isn’t really clear yet.

“Every day, people are making tough decisions about what risks they’re willing to take on, and what benefits they get,” Radcliff said. “The information overload can definitely be hard.”

Friday night, at Ten Bells Tavern, Jared Robinson certainly felt that way.

“I really haven’t seen firm, convincing numbers about infection,” said Robinson, a bartender and server at nearby Paradiso in Bishop Arts. “There’s a lot of information out there. I don’t know what to believe, so I can only go by what’s in front of me.”

That’s what had brought him out on reopening night to Ten Bells, where, hungry for socialization, he’d sat at the bar and reengaged with others, just like old times. Aside from the bartenders, no one wore a mask.

“I could get hit by a car going home,” he said. ”I mean, it’s life. What are we going to do, stay in our houses for two years?”

As the night wore on at Lee Harvey’s early Friday opening, the definition of who had come with who became hard to monitor in the darkness, and at one table, two older men had been joined by two young women they had just met earlier at the bar, engaged in conversation:

The ’80s had some of the most underrated music ever.

Did you know Brooke Shields was just 11 years old when she did 'Pretty Baby?’

You want to know why I’m really here?

“I’m here to support a bar that’s gonna do something like this, opening at midnight,” one of the men said. “I’m here for that. Because you know they’re not gonna make a bunch of money. So for me, it’s more about the principle.”

Customers settle up on their tabs with employee Zachary Anderson at the Lee Harvey's bar.
Customers settle up on their tabs with employee Zachary Anderson at the Lee Harvey's bar.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

As last call approached, people at one table arm-wrestled and an off-duty staffer who’d dropped by to see old friends departed with a round of embraces. Elbow bumps of arrival were now high fives of departure, fist bumps had become elaborate handshakes. And there was little the best-intentioned bar staff could do about that.

As people began to vacate the premises, the four new acquaintances bid good night with tipsy pronouncements: It was rad meeting you, one guy said to the woman next to him, before planting a dreamy-eyed kiss on her lips.

Marc Ramirez. Marc Ramirez is a veteran narrative/lifestyles journalist and food/drink enthusiast. In addition to the Dallas Morning News, he has worked for the Seattle Times, The Wall Street Journal and Phoenix New Times and has degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of California-Berkeley. When life gives him lemons, he makes Aviations.

mramirez@dallasnews.com /MarcRamirez.Journalist @typewriterninja

Charles Scudder, Staff writer. Charlie Scudder is a general assignment reporter and has worked on the features and news desks for five years. He's also an adjunct professor at UNT's Mayborn School of Journalism. Raised in Colleyville, he is a graduate of both Southern Methodist University and Indiana University.

cscudder@dallasnews.com @cscudder

Jeremy Hallock, Special Contributor. Jeremy Hallock is a Dallas freelance writer.

artslife@dallasnews.com

Holly K. Hacker. Holly works on the investigations team after many years covering education for The Dallas Morning News. She specializes in data analysis. Previously Holly reported for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Ventura County (Calif.) Star and the Antioch (Calif.) Ledger Dispatch.

hhacker@dallasnews.com @hollyhacker
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