Monica Pahkala was still applying her makeup behind the bar of the Poop Deck, her nautical-themed spot on Galveston Island, on Friday morning when the first patrons walked in. The bar was roped off so guests couldn’t approach it, and the bartenders told those who showed up to use hand sanitizer as they entered. Patrons couldn’t order unless they were seated at a table.
The Poop Deck, which has an unobstructed view of the beach and is adorned by ropes and netting, had been closed for 65 days prior, because of city and state restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. When Governor Greg Abbott announced last Monday that Texas bars could reopen at 25 percent capacity on Friday, Pahkala and her husband knew they’d open back up. They were concerned about their health, but had been relying on unemployment benefits while the establishment was shuttered. And Memorial Day weekend has long marked the unofficial start of the summer season in Texas, and is one of the busiest on the island.
The Pahkalas had fewer than four days to replace and replenish their alcohol, clean and sanitize every surface, and figure out the best way to configure the tables and chairs to keep guests at least somewhat separated. Inside, they limited capacity to 75 people. Outdoors, where there is no capacity limit per Abbott’s order, they converted the small parking lot in front of the bar into a seating space. On the bar’s upper deck, which has a bronze-painted replica of the Statue of Liberty standing like Jack on the bow of the Titanic, they spaced chairs out, though not quite six feet apart.
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“The phone has been ringing nonstop,” Pahkala said Friday morning. “‘Are y’all opened? When are y’all gonna open?’”
While several Galveston bars reopened before the city and state restrictions were lifted, Pahkala wasn’t willing to risk it. She was worried she could receive a fine or the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission could revoke the bar’s license to sell alcohol if it opened early. “I wasn’t taking the chance,” she said.
But visitors started filtering in immediately upon the Poop Deck’s opening on Friday. Victor Garcia, 61, who’s been coming to the bar for years, drove in from Houston that morning. By 10:30 a.m., he had already downed a bowl of seafood gumbo at the nearby Gumbo Diner and was on his third beer at the Poop Deck. “I’m not Republican or Democrat, but I believe that [bars] should be open,” he told me. “And if people want to take a chance on their lives or not take a chance, I think it’s their prerogative.”
Garcia sat down next to Jim Massey, 59, on the bar’s upper deck, where the two quickly discovered they attended the same high school in Baytown.
“This is my place to come and decompress, man,” Garcia told Massey. “It’s so unpretentious. You can let your hair down and feel the breeze.”
Garcia, who is bald, was wearing a black bandanna around his neck, which he could’ve used as a mask but didn’t. He said he wants the bar to be his final resting place and that he’s given his brother strict instructions for how to carry out his last wishes.
“I said take my ashes, go to the Poop Deck, and just throw them off the balcony,” Garcia said.
When a couple near Garcia and Massey got up and left, a bartender in a white sailor’s hat sprayed down the bar and chairs with disinfectant and wiped them with paper towels. Garcia said it was “cool” that the bar was taking steps to make people feel safer. He mused that it should’ve had these practices in place before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Massey, who’s been spending most of his time at home over the past few months to avoid getting the virus, said he didn’t mind having to use hand sanitizer upon entering. He also thinks he might’ve already gotten COVID-19, after attending the Galveston Mardi Gras celebration in February and coming down with flulike symptoms.
“We recovered in like two weeks, so hopefully I’ve got the immunity,” Massey said, laughing. “I got over it, so y’all don’t have to worry. I’m not still contagious.”
Twelve hours later, at 10 p.m., more than one hundred people had flocked to the bar. A local cover band, Nite Wave, played on the bottom floor, about six feet from the nearest table. The majority of people gathered out front in the parking lot turned patio space.
Monica Marshall, 50, who was the first one in the door when the Poop Deck opened that morning, was still there.
“Everybody here is so friendly,” Marshall said, a can of Bud Light in her hand. Pre-quarantine, she would come to the bar three or four times a week. She didn’t think it was fair that bars were one of the last businesses allowed to reopen.
“It’s hypocritical. They let everybody go to Bolivar [Peninsula] during Jeep weekend, you can be up each other’s butts in the grocery store,” she said. “But then [bars] have to mind their p’s and q’s, or they get fined.”
Marshall, a veteran who served in the Navy and Coast Guard, said she wasn’t bothered by the extra steps the Poop Deck had taken to comply with social distancing requirements, but she didn’t totally agree with them.
“It’s Memorial Day weekend,” Marshall said. “We’re supposed to remember the ones who gave their lives for the very freedom that they’re taking away.”