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New pandemic clampdowns in Texas, Florida rattle business owners

Erwin Seba and Zachary Ferguson
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New pandemic clampdowns in Texas, Florida rattle business owners

FILE PHOTO: Agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission check that bars are maintaining social distancing protocols in Austin

By Erwin Seba and Zachary Ferguson

HOUSTON/MIAMI (Reuters) - Bar and restaurant owners in Texas and Florida were fuming on Friday after state officials abruptly slapped new restrictions on their businesses due to a spike in new COVID-19 cases.

Owners warned the sudden reversals, just weeks after accelerated reopenings, will drive some out of business.

"You can't turn a bar into an UberEats," said Jeff Kaplan, co-owner of Houston's Axelrad Beer Garden. He said businesses could not stay afloat relying on the new rules that provide to-go sales but not alcohol consumption on the premises.

Houston officials advised residents to stay home, and Texas ordered doctors to end elective surgeries as new coronavirus cases set records on three consecutive days. Florida reported nearly 9,000 new infections on Friday, also a record high.

Houston restaurant owner Peter Mitchell said his revenue has been running a third of normal and fell further as virus cases soared in the region.

"It'll be a close call as to whether we stay open," he said.

"I wish we had tougher restrictions for another month when we did the 25% occupancy (phase)," said Mitchell. He said his business never has exceeded 25% occupancy, but noted that no regulators have ever checked.

Florida owners also complained that counties and cities in the state had inconsistent operating rules.

“The level of ambiguity that we’ve run into every step of the way has been really challenging,” said Will Thompson, owner of Miami’s Jaguar Sun. "It comes back to the lack of clarity from officials.”

Gabriel Orta, whose company runs hotel food and beverage operations in Miami, said rules are inconsistent. "We don’t have the leadership that we need when we go into a catastrophe," he added.

Anthony Wegmann, who ran four bars and restaurants in Texas, closed two after a landlord would not grant a reprieve on rent. "There's no way a business can pay 100% of their bills on 25% of their revenue," he said.

Some are willing to accept the loss of business for the public good. "It was a little unexpected," said Sara Murray, manager of the Cheers Pub in Friendswood, Texas. "In the end we all have to do what we have to do to keep everyone safe.


(Reporting by Zachary Ferguson in Miami and Erwin Seba in Houston; writing by Gary McWilliams; Editing by David Gregorio)