Like many other business owners, Aaron Longoria closed the doors to his bar in mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic induced statewide shutdowns. The 35-year-old owns and operates My Friend’s Backyard, which offers a casual environment near Trinity University. He hasn’t reopened the place yet but plans to on Friday.

“I got behind on remodeling,” he explained.

Longoria wasn’t talking about remodeling his bar. He was referring to how he has kept up his income during the pandemic.

While My Friend’s Backyard stayed closed due to local and state orders, he took on other jobs to make money. He became a sort of all-around handyman to pay his bills, he said. He’s been able to stay afloat on the odd house-painting job or grass-cutting gig, but he’s ready to reopen My Friend’s Backyard.

“I’ve always been the one to work,” he said of his contingency income efforts.

Longoria is one of the many owners and operators of bars around Bexar County that only recently were able to reopen their doors with limited capacity; Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s most recent executive order allowed local bars to reopen at 50 percent capacity starting last Tuesday.

Now, more good news is on the horizon for Longoria and others. Bars and restaurants in Bexar County with up to 60 full-time or part-time employees with revenue of less than $5 million a year can apply for County-funded grants up to $25,000.

Aaron Longoria is an owner of My Friend’s Backyard, which closed in mid-March. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

County commissioners approved the grant program last Tuesday, earmarking almost $4 million for bars and restaurants in the county. The program came after the creation of the County’s original small business coronavirus relief program, which was administered by microlender LiftFund and has already assisted more than 850 small businesses around Bexar County. LiftFund will administer the restaurant and bar grant program as well.

“Locally-owned restaurants and bars have been innovating and adapting their business models to be able to survive,” LiftFund President and CEO Janie Barrera said in a statement Monday. “This new grant program will strengthen these businesses, so they can retain employees, better serve their customers and, in some cases, reopen during this trying time.”

The necessity of having a grant fund specifically for bars and restaurants was apparent to Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) when he heard that roughly a third of about 2,400 applicants for the original small business grant program were restaurants and bars.

“San Antonians, like me, love to eat, and we want to make sure we keep our unique cuisine,” Calvert said at the Oct. 20 Commissioners Court meeting. “People do come here for our cuisine. … We’re now a city of gastronomy, and we want to make sure those … restaurants continue when we start to contain the virus.”

But unlike restaurants, bars had to wait longer to reopen their doors – especially if they were unable to reinvent themselves as restaurants under Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) guidelines.

Joe Martinez owns three bars in southern Bexar County. Martinez was able to reopen R&J Music Pavilion in September as a restaurant and reopened Joey’s Sports Bar last Thursday. But he said he’s waiting to see how business at Joey’s Sports Bar goes before reopening his last establishment, R&J Saloon.

“As long as I can make some income and stay afloat, then you know I’m going to do the best I can without, without putting people’s lives in jeopardy,” Martinez said. “A lot of bar owners do care [about coronavirus precautions]. We’re just trying to make a living just like anybody else.”

Martinez said he plans to apply for assistance from the County grant program. While getting another bar up and running helps bolster Martinez’s income, he said some of the coronavirus prevention measures in place make it impossible to match his previous revenue. For instance, Gov. Greg Abbott’s new bar guidance, which authorized local officials to make the call on reopening, requires bars to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m.

‘The green light to reopen offers “a little bit of relief,” but the majority of my revenue is made between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” he said.

Martinez estimated that all three of his establishments generated about $2.5 million in gross revenue annually. This year, he’s brought in only about $600,000 so far and still has to pay his locations’ property taxes and mortgage bills, he said. Even if he were able to get $25,000 for each bar, that’s not enough to make up the difference, Martinez said.

“That money will probably go toward property taxes with not much left over,” he said.

Longoria also plans to apply for the new grants. He said he was originally reticent to ask for financial assistance, but his dad, who is a co-owner, encouraged him to apply for the County grant program.

“It doesn’t hurt to try to reach out, to ask for a little bit of help, because it’s out there,” he said.

LiftFund began accepting applications for the program Monday. The $3.7 million dedicated to restaurant and bar grants will be evenly split among the four precincts. Applications are due by Nov. 2. Apply here.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.