Greetings, friends. It’s been a while since I’ve last posted here. In COVID time, it’s been years. While there’s been plenty to write about, I’ve found the discourse around COVID to be increasingly depressing and tired, and I did not wish to add to it. But, given that COVID has been the issue dominating our lives for the intervening period, what else could I write about today?
So much has happened that a proper accounting of all the shut-downs, reopenings, re-shutdowns, mandates, case spikes, etc. would be exhausting. But we can summarize by recounting the most dramatic event as it pertains to our brewery. After reopening in late May, and responding to a rise in COVID cases in Texas, our Governor called for a re-closing. Governor Abbott, declaring “bars” to be the culprit of COVID spreading, ordered all bars statewide to shut down on June 26th, with 3 hours’ notice.
On his part, there was no explanation for how this conclusion was drawn, or how a bar complying with social distancing protocols is any less safe than a restaurant complying with social distancing protocols. Indeed, restaurants were allowed to remain open (and keep their bars open), and since then they’ve been allowed to increase capacity back to 75% of pre-COVID levels, while bars remain closed to this day.
Breweries, wineries, and distilleries fall under the category of “bars”, thus this mandate affects us. But we have not been entirely closed. We are open for To-Go sales, and we certainly don’t stop our customers from drinking their to-go beer in the garden not far from our tap room. However, we’re still highly constrained in this mode of operation – we can’t serve beer in glassware, nor can we allow a single customer to enjoy a beer in our 1000 square foot tap room that we spent a good deal of time and money building and permitting, and that we continue to pay rent on.
We got a call from the TABC a month ago. The agent was calling in response to an anonymous complaint alleging that we were open. I explained to him that we are open for to-go sales only, hence we’re in compliance with the governor’s order. He was professional and polite, and he did not contest our compliance. Instead, he tried to explain to me that there is a way we could get open without having to wait for Governor Abbott to lift the ban. It all has to do with the distinction between restaurant and bar, as defined in the executive order. You see, a restaurant is an establishment that serves food, and whose sales of alcohol are less than 51% of its gross receipts. Therefore, if we serve food, and we could somehow make our sales of alcohol less than 51% of gross receipts, we could qualify as a restaurant, and we would no longer be subject to this closing order. There are all sorts of conditions here, including how many entrees need to be on the menu, what classifies as an entrée, how Food Truck sales should be routed through the host’s sales, etc.
All you have to do is jump through some hoops and you can get open! We’ve seen hundreds of breweries and bars go through this process – signing up a permanent food truck or putting in a kitchen, getting new permits if necessary, waiting for administrative approval, and voila, they’ve gone from Bar (COVID-unsafe) to Restaurant (COVID-safe). But we have not gone through this process, and we do not plan on doing so.
We’re not in the food business. We’re lucky to have relationships with several talented and passionate chefs who fill our rotation of food pop-ups that we have on site throughout the week. But we do not want their operation tangled into our simple business of selling tank-fresh beer. We do not want to be sweating over the percentage of sales we’re getting from food versus beer.
But really, the question we should be asking ourselves is how the hell did this become law? There are plenty of opinions out there on COVID, but is there any reasonable person who believes this transformation from Bar to Restaurant makes a single person any safer? Does The Science say that a food truck a day keeps the COVID away?
2 + 2 = 5
Orwell writes in 1984 that Freedom is “the right to say that two and two is four” – in other words, the right to speak the truth. By the same token, when our government imposes sheer nonsense upon us – when we’re forced to endorse a lie as bold-faced as 2 + 2 = 5 in order to survive – this is the very definition of tyranny.
And tyranny has become widely embraced in short order. The separation of powers, which entails that legislation is the job of our legislators, has been abandoned in favor of a dictatorship, where the governor has the absolute power to make laws instantaneously and without challenge. To enforce them, he’s commandeered the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to act as a police force. And these armed bureaucrats have willingly obliged, shutting down and fining bars, restaurants, and breweries who have not violated the Alcoholic Beverage Code, but instead have failed to comply with the whims of our governor.
You might say that in the face of a Pandemic, these extraordinary measures are all necessary, or at least that their consequences pale in comparison to the death and destruction that would visit upon us if we dared to do our civic duty in properly restraining our government. So what if we have to give our governor the power to single-handedly decide the fate of livelihoods or to embrace pseudo-science as though it were actual science? We must do whatever is necessary to combat this unprecedented disaster! Once we get through this pandemic, it will all go back to normal – the economy will come back, the government will go back to obeying the law and respecting its citizens, and we won’t have to lie to each other.
I was naïve enough to believe this in March, when the goal was to “flatten the curve” (a tagline that’s since been abandoned in favor of the more nebulous, and creepy: “We’re all in this together”). At that time, we couldn’t rule out an R0 of 5+, an IFR of 5%, and a repeat of the Spanish Flu or worse – COVID represented an existential threat to our species. We saw the stories of deaths in the streets in Lombardi and NYC due to overwhelmed health care systems, and concluded that no precautionary measures should be off the table. While almost every other brewery stayed open to sell beer-to-go, we completely closed Holler Brewing, halting production and sales, as we felt it our responsibility to slow the spread in hopes of preventing catastrophe.
New Evidence, New Conclusions
But as history unfolds before our eyes, we see new information come to light every day. In the 6 months since March, when the death count in NYC was doubling every four days, our stockpile of data on this virus has grown from an anthill to a mountain. For example, we now know that the surges in NYC and Lombardi were due, in large part, to sending COVID patients into nursing homes. We know a lot more about this virus’s IFR, common comorbidities, how it spreads (or doesn’t), and how to treat it.
With this stream of information coming in, we are (or we should be) constantly re-evaluating the profile of this virus and how we should be confronting it. And in our current evaluation, this virus is now highly unlikely to cause a Spanish Flu-like disaster, particularly if we avoid sending COVID patients into nursing homes.
In addition to that stream of new virus information coming to light every day is an ever-expanding account of the negative impacts of our COVID mitigation measures. Livelihoods have evaporated. Businesses (particularly small businesses) have permanently closed. Children have been isolated from their friends and permanently deprived of some life’s most precious experiences. What daily life remains has been filled up with COVID trappings: Masks everywhere – even on kids and even on the beach; All our beloved corporations and political institutions chiming in, reminding us to “Stay safe” at every turn; Virtual happy hours, virtual school, virtual meetings, virtual family reunions, and other virtual events now fill up our calendars; the new common trope of “every other thing canceled” – chairs at a park, tables at a restaurant, urinals in the men’s room – with every other item “canceled” out with tape or some COVID sign so as to enforce social distancing.
To be clear, I’m not saying these things are all completely unnecessary, or that we should live in ignorance of COVID and other threats. Rather, my point is that all of these sacrifices, big and small, sensible and nonsense, serious and funny, have combined to siphon the joy out of life and inflict an un-measurable, but severe amount of damage upon society that is just as irreversible as death.
Just as the wealth of new data on the virus has prompted me to re-evaluate the threat, so too has my personal experience over the last 6 months caused me to re-evaluate the mitigation. At the beginning of COVID, I was in favor of these measures – I was actually in favor of a harsher lockdown measure. Now, having lived through this still-ongoing regime of COVID hysteria, and having my business subject to tyrannical rule by government lunatics, and having our way of life turned upside down for an indefinite period of time, I feel that I could not have been more wrong.
We’re okay, though
That said, we’ve endured this longer than I ever would have thought possible (remember “15 days to slow the spread”?) thanks to the people around us. This pandemic, and the accompanying epidemic of tyranny, have put the plight of small business front and center. Those of us on the inside knew the struggle long before COVID – as soon as you start a small business you realize you’re hopelessly, perpetually swimming upstream. But I now notice, and feel, a deep appreciation for what we do and the risk we take from those around me. I’m closer with friends now who are continuing to check in on us. Our employees – those who are still with us – are fiercely loyal to the company, having seen it weather this storm so far (I can’t say enough good things about the Covid Comeback Crew!). And we have more regular customers now than we ever did.
So, despite all there is to be anxious, furious, and depressed about – I am still incredibly grateful for what we do have. Even though we’re forced to operate in limited fashion, we still know we’re serving a community need, one tank-fresh pint (to-go) at a time. I still have faith in localism – that authentic interaction on a local scale, with those who have true skin in the game will never be replaced by the likes of the Kroger automated voice telling you that “we’re all in this together”.