One Houston-area business owner shares how his business struggled, and later died, thanks to government shutdown orders and restrictions. Even so, state officials allowed other businesses to survive and thrive, and he wants to know why.
“It was one year ago today at 8 o’clock in the morning. [Gov. Greg Abbott] announced all businesses [were to] shut down at noon,” James Kopeck told Texas Scorecard in an interview on March 16. He owned Chuters Dance and Night Club in Pasadena, a city in southeast Houston. Chuters was one of the many businesses Abbott forced to shut down last year as part of his response to the Chinese coronavirus.
“We went broke,” Kopeck said. “I didn’t make it.”
Kopeck used to go to Chuters when he was younger, back when it was called the Texas Saloon. In early 2020, shortly before Abbott’s shutdown, Kopeck and a business partner bought Chuters. The owner at the time was a friend of Kopeck’s, who had been planning to close the business.
“I sure hate to see this closed down because there’s nothing else like it in the Pasadena area,” Kopeck said upon learning what his friend planned to do. And his business partner, Chris Berstrom, had long dreamed of having a bar.
“We signed the papers on March 1 of last year—and then March 16, we got shut down,” Kopeck said. “We put all our money into this thing, buying it, and then they shut us down.”
When the government shutdowns hit, Chuters was preparing for St. Patrick’s Day.
“We had a big event planned, and we had bought product and everything,” Kopeck recalled. “We lost a lot of money and product.”
Kopeck described the despair, hope, and loss his business went through.
“We were shut down for 15 days, and we started doing a little remodeling on the place,” he said. “And then … I think it was in May … we opened up for another three weeks, and then [Abbott] shut us down again.”
“We had a big event planned for the weekend. We had two big [country singers] coming in,” Kopeck continued. “That was just another punch in the gut when we shut down again.”
On June 26, 2020, Abbott issued an executive order allowing a number of businesses to reopen as long as they opened at half their normal capacity, but businesses like Chuters that receive 51 percent or more of their revenue from alcohol sales were ordered to remain closed.
Kopeck tried to navigate the changing restrictions just to survive.
“I surrendered my liquor license, so now I could open up as a BYOB venue,” he said. “I opened up, and the people just didn’t come out.”
We were behind on all the bills, and we couldn’t get caught up. On December 13, we finally said we lost enough money and we shut it down.
During the first shutdown, Kopeck tried to find innovative ways to make money through private parties. During one such event, where only 80 of 100 invited guests showed up, police shut down the event even though Kopeck said the venue was only at 25 percent capacity.
“They finally made me shut down. But it was midnight, so we were shutting down anyway,” he said. “We held another one the following week, and they didn’t come bother me.”
I was just trying to recoup some money at the time to help pay some rent.
He wasn’t the only one encountering more resistance from government. Kopeck told a story about another Pasadena spot, Janie’s Diamond Club, where the owner, her husband, and their neighbors were holding a barbecue benefit to help their employees—until the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission came calling.
“TABC came in and said … only [Janie] can be in here,” Kopeck said. “Chris [Polone] at the Rail Club [in Fort Worth] had a guitar school. They wouldn’t let him do that.”
Kopeck did what he could to help his employees, but the bills kept piling up. “[During the] first shut down … we paid our employees,” he said. “But the second shutdown … we just couldn’t afford it because we had rent we paid, and we paid utilities.”
Even after surrendering his liquor license and reopening Chuters as just a venue, Kopeck still felt the effects of the government’s messaging to citizens about the coronavirus.
“We opened up and it was fine for a little bit, but the people were so afraid to get out,” he said. “Our regulars came, but we just didn’t have enough to keep the overhead going.”
While government mandates strangled Chuters, Kopeck had to watch as other alcohol-serving businesses thrived.
“Some of the little bars around here tripled, quadrupled, six, seven times the revenue from mixed beverage sales,” he said. “My customers didn’t quit drinking, they just went somewhere else to drink.”
Last year, Kopeck and hundreds of other bar owners peacefully protested at an event called Freedom Fest, where they demonstrated they could open safely using the strict protocols followed by similar businesses.
During the shutdowns, Kopeck said he couldn’t get a hold of Pasadena city officials for help, and he and others were greeted by closed doors when they came to Austin to talk with TABC.
They didn’t want to talk to us.
Kopeck was clear about how he felt government officials acted. “I feel it never should have been shut down like it was,” he said. “Maybe the reduced capacity … okay, I can see that to help the distancing. But not a complete shutdown.”
“I don’t see how government can tell your business you can be open or closed if you’re not doing anything wrong,” he continued. “That’s just, to me, government overreach.”
Kopeck was asked what he’d tell Abbott if he were in the same room with him.
“I would probably ask him why he shut only the bars down and not the restaurant bars,” he replied.
If it’s a good reason, I will take that to heart, and I will walk away and never say another word.
If your business had to close permanently last year due to government restrictions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.