As Texas’ small-business owners remain frustrated by Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus closures and suffer under his arbitrary rules for reopening, a hard-hit group of businesses known as “51-percenters” say the governor’s unilateral shutdown orders are killing them.

“We are dying, and I think it’s on purpose,” said Sandra Young, owner of Bokeeters Cocktail Bar in New Caney, at a rally last Saturday to publicize the state’s abuse of small businesses like hers.

The 51-percenters include bars, some restaurants, live music venues, dance halls, craft breweries, winery and distillery tasting rooms, VFW halls—any business that holds a permit from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and receives more than 51 percent of its revenue from alcohol sales.

While similar businesses have been allowed to partially reopen, Abbott’s executive order GA-28 has kept 51-percenters closed since the end of June.

Under GA-28—one of 22 unilateral “emergency” orders issued by the governor since he first declared a public health disaster in March—if a person visits a bar or other 51-percent business, the owner is subject to fines or having their license suspended by the TABC.

“The 51-percenters took that as a death sentence,” said Chris Polone, owner of The Rail Club Live in Fort Worth, who hosted last Saturday’s event to expose what he calls corruption behind the state’s targeting of their small businesses.

Polone said people don’t know how bad it is.

He and others say Abbott’s arbitrary lockdown regulations are not only causing financial ruin but have allowed business owners to be harassed, intimidated, and extorted—all under the guise of public safety.

“This has nothing to do with public safety,” Polone said.

Polone said the biggest problem with GA-28 is that it’s open to interpretation. He said the TABC found out about the order at the same time the public did and had no idea how to enforce it.

“They get to wing it,” he said.

In the past few months, Polone and others have had their liquor licenses suspended, been raided by armed TABC officers, received citations and fines, and had their bank accounts frozen by the Texas Comptroller. The day before the rally, the city of Fort Worth issued Polone a stack of health code citations.

They’ve also faced a changing series of costly TABC regulations and permits that would allow them to reopen as restaurants by selling food on their premises.

Polone said if it was about public health, the TABC would be working with 51-percenters on safe operating procedures, instead of pitching expensive permits and food-service rules that do nothing to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

“Corona won’t attack you with a hot dog?” said Young, recounting the string of arbitrary TABC rules for 51-percenters to open—from building a kitchen to having a food truck outside to getting a toaster oven and selling frozen pizzas or hot dogs.

“And pay the money,” Young added. “How is this about public health?”

The targeted shutdown of 51-percenters isn’t based on any public health evidence provided by the state.

“Where is the data that any coronavirus cases were traced back to bars?” asked investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino in a video released last week.

Dolcefino says there isn’t any, adding that restaurant bars are packed.

“Why are we destroying the livelihoods of bar owners who don’t serve enough food?” he said. “It’s stupid.”

“Everyone thinks we’re fighting for our right to party, for the bars,” Polone said. “This was never about bars. This is about freedom.”

“We’re fighting for our right to open, to feed our families,” added James Kopeck, co-owner of Chuters Dance Hall and Saloon in Pasadena.

That fight has unified independent 51-percenters against a common enemy: Abbott.

They’ve held a series of rallies, including Freedom Fest in July, which Polone said included owners of 797 bars across Texas.

They also filed a lawsuit against Abbott and the TABC in June that claims the governor’s orders violate the Texas Constitution by depriving them of their freedom to operate and by arbitrarily punishing specific businesses:

Governor Abbott’s Executive Order GA-28 picks and chooses winners and losers. … Unfortunately for Plaintiffs and other bar owners, they have been relegated to Governor Abbott’s loser category and sentenced to bankruptcy.

At least one member of Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas agrees.

“I think bars should reopen,” Jim “Mattress Mack” Mcingvale, told ABC13 Houston on September 5. “We’re selecting the winners and losers in the economy, and I don’t think that’s really fair.”

“Why is Abbott doing this to us?” asked Tee Allen, owner of The Machine Shed Bar and Grill in Kilgore and the Roughneck Café in White Oak, on Saturday.

Allen said Abbott’s orders have taken a personal toll on her mental state and have hurt her businesses financially. “I’m tired but I want back what I worked for,” she said.

Polone accused some of Abbott’s Strike Force members of having ulterior motives for keeping 51-percenters shuttered, saying alcohol sales went up while bars are closed.

“People are profiting off the fact that we are closed down,” he said. “Follow the money.”

“I think this is a huge money grab,” Young said, describing the hundreds of dollars the TABC charges for certificates that allow businesses like hers to continue operating—assuming they also meet the frequently changing rules for selling food. “I will not pay TABC one dollar in extortion money. … I will not close.”

The 51-percenters aren’t the only ones frustrated by Abbott’s ongoing unilateral orders. Small-business owners crippled by arbitrary closure rules, parents who want their children back in school classrooms, people sick of mask mandates, and lawmakers shut out of the decision-making process are all calling on the governor to fully reopen Texas.

Citizens have organized a “Free Texas” protest rally at the governor’s mansion in Austin on Saturday, October 10.

Frustrated 51-percenters say they will continue to fight Abbott for the right to keep their businesses alive.

“If he wants our liberty … he will have to come right to our doors and take it himself. We can no longer allow him to steal our freedoms,” Polone said. “If you want our bars, come and take it.”

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.


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