On Friday, thanks to an executive order issued Monday by Gov. Greg Abbott, restaurants across Texas can elect to re-open their dining rooms considering they follow multiple guidelines, including limiting occupancy to 25 percent of their regular capacities, maintaining a six-foot separation between people, and limiting table size to six guests.
The order means that, for the first time since Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for the mandatory shut down of restaurant dining rooms on March 16, people can sit inside a dining establishment to eat and drink. Abbott had announced a stay-home order on April 1 to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and with this move, and the corresponding end to the stay-home order this Thursday, he said in his address Monday that it was time to re-start the Texas economy.
To say Gov. Abbott’s order received a mixed response is putting it lightly. At the macro level, the Texas Restaurant Association applauded the move for “outlining a clear, science-based approach for Texas to accomplish what must be our two priorities—protecting public health and preventing economic collapse.”
During the 40-day shut down to help stop the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 650 Texans, nearly 700,000 restaurant jobs and $4.2 billion were lost, according to the TRA.
On the other side, many food-and-drink operators have expressed their discomfort with Gov. Abbott's order.
"Gov. Abbott does not care about small business owners or independent contractors," wrote Greenway Coffee co-founder David Buehrer on Twitter Tuesday. "He cares only about big business. Total failure."
The health of people across the state is one reason some restaurateurs are opting to wait things out longer.
“I understand that there needs to be a step at some point, but I think it’s more a showcase that the economy is about to crash than about the safety of our employees and the public,” says June Rodil, partner at Goodnight Hospitality. “This isn’t the race where you want to be the first place to open.”
Goodnight’s cornerstone restaurant Rosie Cannonball won’t open its dining room Friday, but it will bring back curbside pick-up and delivery services May 4. There’s no timetable for opening the dining room, but Rodil says the team is constantly meeting to chat about how best to proceed.
“We really need to take the time to understand what the best precautionary measures are for our employees and our guests,” she says.
Other restaurants that are planning to wait things out include, for example, Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's, Caracol, and Xochi, all of the H-Town Restaurant Group. Co-owner Tracy Vaught wrote on Facebook Monday that Backstreet and Hugo's will open May 18, Abbott's targeted phase-two date when restaurants could increase capacity to 50 percent, if the COVID-19 spread has further weakened. She added that Caracol would open when the Galleria's businesses are back, and that Xochi will wait until conventions return and the Marriott Marquis Hotel, where the restaurant is located, is back to a "reasonable occupancy."
For restaurateurs who plan on welcoming guests into their establishments on Friday, the order is welcome news.
Arnaldo Richards’ Picos, one of Houston’s beloved Mexican restaurants, will open its dining room. Monica Richards, chief marketing office and beverage director at Picos, says her staff has been preparing and feels they're "already above and beyond any type of precautionary measures to clean and sanitize our restaurant to begin with."
All reservations for Picos are handled by one service, Open Table, and when the magic number of 74 guests (25 percent of its 298 capacity) is hit for one time, the room is booked.
“We’re going to be spacing all our tables accordingly,” says Monica Richards, general manager at Picos. “Gov. Abbott said it wasn’t essential for people to wear masks, but our staff will be wearing them.”
Picos may swap out linen tablecloths for easier-to-clean vinyl, while its menu remains vinyl. If people come to Picos to reserve a table or get there early, they’ll have to wait in their vehicles.
The reservation system may be very different at King’s Bierhaus in the Heights. The restaurant known for German fare and beer is considering setting all bookings with rigid time limits for every meal. For example, imagine a Friday night with a set 5 p.m. service, 6:30 p.m. service, and 8 p.m. service, with diners getting an hour to eat before leaving. Staff then has a half-hour to sanitize everything before welcoming the next batch of diners.
That’s just one option KB Restaurant Group CEO Philipp Sitter is considering. He says he’s still weighing ideas and figuring out details, like how to best separate people waiting to get into King's Bierhaus and if customers would want to have their temperature checked at the door. To get some answers, he sent out a survey to customers through his company VIP Insiders that asks a range of questions about how to proceed safely in this new reality.
“We want to hear directly from them so we know what’s important to them,” Sitter says. “If customers feel more comfortable with certain procedures they’ll stay a little longer. We need to know so they feel confident that we’re taking care of them.”
The customers and seeing staff members make more money, Sitter says, are the main reasons he’s re-opening the dining room on Friday. He admits with poor sales it’s possible he loses more money staying open with 25 percent occupancy than without a dining room altogether, but he says "it's not about profit at this point."
“I think it’s more of a psychological win for people looking to go out and looking to work,” he says. “There’s always the chance that we could really ramp up the cases by doing this. I respect both sides, but I also respect peoples’ opinion to choose for themselves.”
Regardless of where folks fall on this issue, Rodil says this is the most important time to be unified as a restaurant community.
“We've gotta really be talking about the future. We've gotta be, as a group, talking about what it’s gonna look like in 2021, in 2025,” she says. “In a really shocking way everybody was very ill-prepared, because we didn’t think anything like this could really happen. We were all kind of consumed with the day-to-day.”