Not Going Away

COVID-19 Remains While Restaurants Consider the New Normal

For the foreseeable future, going out to eat may just mean risking your health more than ever.

By Timothy Malcolm June 16, 2020

Less than two weeks ago, Sara Stayer, co-owner of Nobie's, told Houstonia, while discussing the closure of the restaurant for the march for George Floyd, that she and husband Martin Stayer were being purposefully cautious while re-opening the dining room.

"We want to keep people employed and healthy," she said. "But we're not gonna push it. We're gonna do what we can as long as we can."

So, Nobie's was open, serving about 20 people at a time in the dining room and on its patio. Then, a few days later, a Facebook post by Nobie's announced a temporary closure because an employee had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Every day it seems another couple Houston-area restaurants have announced a temporary closure because a staff member has tested positive for COVID-19. Notable examples over the last several weeks, along with Nobie's, include La Lucha and Superica, Relish Restaurant & Bar, Taste of Texas, Millie's Kitchen & Cocktails, and FM Kitchen and Bar.

More temporary closures are expected, especially as the rate of COVID-19 cases has only risen over the past several weeks. So, is this the new normal we should get used to?

The trends

On June 3, Gov. Greg Abbott declared that bars, brewery taprooms, and wine tasting rooms could immediately bring in up to 50 percent of regular capacity. He also announced that on June 12, or last Friday, restaurants could increase dining room size to 75 percent of regular capacity. 

But since late May and through this expansion at bars and dining rooms across Texas, a surge of new COVID-19 cases has brought national attention to the state and city.

Last Wednesday, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services reported 2,504 new daily cases, the highest one-day total of new COVID-19 cases since the virus first arrived in the state. The second-highest day of new cases was just two days later, or Friday, with 2,331 new cases. The third highest day? Thursday: 2.097 new cases.

As the trend of more COVID-19 cases continues, along with the expansion of restaurant and bar capacities, more restaurants are closing temporarily. Some restaurateurs are more apt to believe that there doesn't seem to be an end in sight to this cycle. 

"My strong belief is this will be going on through the end of the year," says Naoki Yoshida, chef/owner at Shun Japanese Kitchen. On June 2, he closed Shun temporarily when someone close to an employee tested positive for COVID-19, deciding that the safety of his employees and their families had to come before making money. 

Taking safety seriously

Shepard Ross, partner at Company of Nomads, which operates Downtown's Bravery Chef Hall, says he'd be surprised if the state walks back its orders for bars and restaurant dining rooms, offering that maybe people are now "strategically more ready to put up with (the virus)." For example, says Ross, customers have stopped inquiring about the capacity of the food hall.

"We have a counter that monitors the doors and shows (number of customers) in real time," he says. "A couple people asked about it early on, but you know, now they really don't care."

Meanwhile, Yoshida says that roughly 80 percent of his guests aren't wearing face masks when coming into Shun.

"We can't stop people from not wearing masks," says Ross. That's true: Abbott announced in May that, people would not be penalized legally for not wearing a face mask in public. (That said, Abbott recently scolded young people for not wearing masks in public.)

Still, says Ross, the onus is on the business to follow the established safety guidelines. He says that at Bravery, all employees wear masks, and their temperatures are regulated daily both in the beginning and in the end of shifts. If a worker tests positive, then tests positive in a second exam to confirm, that worker and all of their team members are quarantined.

Yoshida says at Shun, all employees are screened upon starting their shifts, and they also wear gloves and masks when serving customers. When announcing its temporary closure, Nobie's claimed the owners keep a daily employee temperature log, and ensure masks are worn at all times and that all surfaces and restrooms are sanitized thoroughly and constantly.

It seems, though, that in a city with so many restaurants, it's impossible to regulate every one of them all of the time. Plus, people can just bring COVID into any place. So as long as the cases remain and public places are open, COVID-19 will likely be a part of our dining lives for the foreseeable future. 

"I think the new normal will involve all of these protocols in place," says Ross. "Some of us are obeying them, while some are not, and the ones who are not, it will lead to problems in their own companies."

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