Signs on the door at Tortuga Sports Lounge notified customers of a closure stemming from a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission order. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

The owner of a West El Paso bar/restaurant said state officials suspended his liquor license for 30 days on Thursday after a bartender briefly lowered her mask to talk to a customer.

The suspension of Tortuga Sports Lounge’s liquor license is part of stepped-up enforcement efforts by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission as El Paso suffers through the nation’s worst big-city COVID-19 outbreak.

TABC spokesman Chris Porter said the license of the bar at 126-A Shadow Mountain Drive was suspended after inspectors found a second violation in as many days at Tortuga.

“TABC uses a progressive warning system when conducting inspections,” Porter said. “The agency makes every effort to resolve minor, correctable infractions with a written warning for the first offense. If a second violation is witnessed on a return visit, or if the initial infraction is an obvious violation such as overcrowding or lack of social distancing or masks, TABC may issue a suspension at that point.”

Tortuga Sports Lounge on Shadow Mountain Drive had its liquor license suspended for 30 days for violating COVID-19 health orders. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Tortuga was given a written warning on Tuesday for violating state emergency health orders, TABC records show. Owner Ron Patterson said he never received a written warning, only a verbal one.

On Wednesday, investigators found that Tortuga “failed to operate its business in accordance with the social distancing requirements and minimum standard health protocols” recommended by the state government, according to the license suspension order. An employee and patron also weren’t wearing face coverings.

Patterson said a customer walked out of a restroom without a mask when a TABC investigator was at Tortuga Tuesday, which led to the written warning. The suspension came when a bartender briefly lowered her mask on Wednesday because a customer was struggling to understand her, he said.

He said the TABC investigator was initially complimentary of Tortuga on Tuesday.

“They said we’re doing everything OK. Everything was by the book. But at one point a customer walked out of the restroom and she didn’t have a mask on. And he goes, yeah, that’s a violation,” said Patterson, who’s owned the bar for seven years. 

He said a different TABC agent witnessed a bartender briefly pull down her mask on Wednesday. “Of course, right now she’s crying,” Patterson said.

He said he is most concerned about his eight employees, who will be out of work for a month.

“Three of my girls, when I texted them this afternoon when I closed, they came in to see me and they’re like, dude, what am I going to do? How am I going to pay rent?” Patterson said. 

Porter said TABC has sent additional agents to El Paso this week because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The agency regularly deploys agents as needed across the state. Examples include bringing agents from other offices to a college or university city as part of spring break or back-to-school operations. One local example includes TABC sending agents to assist at the ports of entry during Paisano season,” he said.

Tortuga is one of two El Paso establishments to have their liquor license suspended this week. Ciro’s at 1610 N. Zarogoza Road was found in violation of social distancing orders, Porter said.

Nine El Paso bars or restaurants, including Tortuga, were listed as being give written warnings for violating COVID-19 orders by TABC since Monday.

Cover photo: Signs on the door at Tortuga Sports Lounge notified customers of a closure stemming from a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission order. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.