'Forgotten industry:' Lubbock bar owner frustrated with no reopening date

May 14, 2020

The week of May finals and graduation at Texas Tech University is usually one of the busiest for bars on Broadway, a needed boost to get businesses near campus through the sleepier summer months.

This year is different. There are no long lines to get into these places, like there normally are as the weather warms up.

Broadway bars, like others across Lubbock and the state, have been closed for two months as part of the coronavirus economic slowdown. Other industries have gotten the green light to reopen. Bars haven’t.

“For the first time in my professional career, I’m scared," said Michael Clintsman. "Just because there’s not even an answer for when we can open or a plan.” 

Clintsman owns three establishments on Broadway – the bars Local and BarPM and recently-opened Atomic Pizza. He says the closures hit him hard. When restaurants could reopen with limited capacity earlier this month, it was like a one-two punch.

“We were doing curbside at Atomic because pizzas translate well to-go. Once they opened up dine-in, we dropped 80% in the first day on curbside," Clintsman said. "So Saturday was our last day to do curbside because it just wasn’t viable. “Now all three are just dead in the water, incurring debt every single day.”

Texas restaurants were able to reopen for dine-in services on May 1 at 25% capacity and with social distancing in mind. Only six people are allowed per party and tables must be six feet apart. As of Thursday, more than 115 restaurants have signed up for the Lubbock Safe program, a voluntary certification process that asks for additional precautions. 

Many local eateries have resumed dine-in services. Others are continuing to stick with take-out options. The point of the state's rules, Gov. Greg Abbott has said, is to give business owners choices.

Excluded in restaurant reopenings are places where alcohol sales exceed 51% of revenue, according to state guidelines. Even if they sell food, these businesses are classified as bars. And they can’t open yet.

“Just because I sell 65% alcohol, I can’t compete or provide for my family or get my 87 employees back to work," Clintsman said.

Lubbock City Councilman Steve Massengale is the co-chair of the Lubbock Economic Recovery Taskforce.

“I think we’re close," he said this past week. "I think the worst part is behind us and those businesses will get to open soon. I just don’t know when at this point."

Massengale also happens to own an apparel business, The Matador, on Broadway, on the same block as Clintsman’s Local and Atomic Pizza. He said he feels for his fellow small business owner, but reopening isn’t a simple thing.

“People group up, they stand around and visit. Or they, you know, maybe they’re watching an event. Maybe they’re dancing. Maybe they’re all up around the bar," Massengale said. "I just think it’s everyone’s concern that it would be very difficult to socially distance in that type of environment.”

Abbott at a May 5 news conference addressed the reopening of bars. He had previously estimated a mid-May restart for the bar biz.

“But we also need to recognize kind of the very nature of a bar," Abbott said. "It brings people close together, in a closed space. In a setting that really is the type of setting that promotes the transmission of infectious diseases.”

The governor said not all bars are the same.

“Some bars are massively large and can easily set up operations that would be able to effectively employee distancing strategies," Abbott said. "What about small bars? How would you operate that way? In ways that would ensure that you’re preventing the transmission of COVID-19? We need to hear details about all different types of issues like that."

Clintsman has talked with every elected official who will listen to him – in the local, state and federal government. He said he and other bar owners could use the same measures restaurants have.

He has stocked up on cleaning solution and hand sanitizer. Tables could be distanced 12 feet apart and cover the dancefloor. Employees would wear masks.

“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it and prove that we can do it," Clintsman said. "I just want to make a living. I just want to get back to work. We’re kind of a forgotten industry.”

The longer his doors are closed, the more worried Clintsman said he gets. He has already missed out on the May revenue that sustains his business. The college football season, another busy time on Broadway, is up in the air.

“We’re just constantly getting behind the eight ball every month that we’re not open and making next year even harder," Clintsman said. “I have a feeling that there’s going to be a pretty large percentage of my industry that doesn’t make it out of this. That’s heartbreaking because people put their blood, sweat and tears into bars and restaurants. And as of right now, we’re just a sinking ship.”

Abbott is expected to announce the next phase of reopening next week.

“A timeline would be everything," Clintsman said.