The first time Texas officials ordered Tee Allen Parker to close up her brand-new bar during the coronavirus pandemic, she begrudgingly waited it out.
Parker scrounged up money to pay her employees, manufactured her own hand sanitizer and started selling masks, she said, even though she doesn’t wear them herself — and has since banned the face coverings from her very own watering hole in the East Texas town of Kilgore.
But when coronavirus infections began soaring again throughout the state and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered drinking establishments statewide to shut down again Friday, the 45-year-old owner of the Machine Shed Bar & Grill decided to put up a fight.
“You can’t tell me that my tiny little bar is the problem. He’s the problem,” she said of Abbott in an interview with The Washington Post. “He’s targeting us, and it’s discrimination.”
Together with 21 other Texas bar owners, Parker on Monday sued Abbott and the state’s alcohol regulators to halt the shutdown order, arguing it unconstitutionally bypasses the state legislature and comes at the particular detriment of bar owners, their families and employees.
While barber shops, hair salons and other types of businesses can continue to operate at full capacity, the lawsuit filed in Travis County District Court says, an order specifically directed at Texas establishments that make most of their sales off alcohol unfairly singles them out.
“This one individual is picking and choosing winners and losers,” Jared Woodfill, a Houston lawyer representing the owners, said in an interview. “Governor Abbott has chosen to sentence bar owners to bankruptcy.”
Neither the governor’s office nor the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission immediately responded to The Post’s requests for comment. But as new infections have shot up in Texas this month, reaching more than 153,000 residents, Abbott admitted he should have been stricter on drinking establishments earlier in the pandemic.
“If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars,” he told ABC affiliate KVIA, “now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting.”
The rolling, seven-day average of new infections in Texas has hit a record high for the past 20 days straight, according to data tracked by The Post. Hospitalizations have soared, too, increasing to nearly 6,000 as of Monday.
Earlier in June, a number of bars and restaurants across the state had already shut down again voluntarily upon learning their employees had tested positive. Abbott said the shutdown was “essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and enhance public health.”
But Parker, the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, said she was unfairly being scapegoated.
Her tin-walled bar was down to less than 100 seats, and most of its tables had been brought outside to give customers enough space to practice social distancing, she said. Meanwhile, she said, a local county judge had organized a prayer rally, churches were holding services for dozens of worshipers, and a few hours away in Houston, thousands had gathered in proximity to mourn the death of George Floyd.
Though Parker said she once supported Abbott, he moved too quickly and inconsistently to reopen, a move that means he is now being inconsistent in his enforcement.
The lawsuit, also ties into a larger legal campaign by Woodfill, the former chair of the Harris County GOP. He has sued Abbott and top county officials six times for their virus-related restrictions on everything from church services to masks in public.
Abbott’s emergency orders have repeatedly cited a 1975 state law that gives his office special powers during disasters — which, until this year, have mostly consisted of hurricanes and tornadoes. But according to the state constitution, only the Texas legislature has the ability to suspend laws in the middle of the pandemic, he said.
The governor can also call state legislators to Austin and ask them to draft up Texas’s response to the virus, Woodfill said, but Abbott has also refused to do so.
“It’s just been a horde of infringement on people’s individual liberties and constitutional rights in the form of executive orders,” he added. “This is one individual making draconian decisions that have destroyed the Texas economy.”
Woodfill said he is hoping the Texas Supreme Court will take up all the pandemic-related lawsuits collectively, setting a legal precedent for what the governor might do in the case of another viral outbreak.
Parker, meanwhile, has her eyes set on something different.
In Kilgore, she organized a “Bar Lives Matter” concert outside her bar on Sunday to raise money for other Texas taprooms that need to pay the bills. Earlier on Monday, she drove to Austin, where she plans to stage a rally outside the Texas Capitol with other bar owners Tuesday, and invited the governor to speak with her one-on-one.
After suing him, though, she’s not so sure that will happen.