The dining room is fully booked for dinner service Friday at Federal American Grill in Hedwig Village. About 60 people will eat at a time—30 percent of the restaurant's normal capacity—with tables kept at least six feet from one another. When a diner gets up to go to the bathroom, a server will wipe down the chair. Then, in front of the bathroom, another worker will stand guard to ensure only one person at a time is occupying the room.
Federal American Grill in Hedwig Village is the first restaurant in Harris County to open its dining room since County Judge* Lina Hidalgo announced the closure of dining rooms in an attempt to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19. Owner Matt Brice is opening because he has the blessing of Hedwig Village officials, including the mayor, who wrote a declaration that'll be presented at front of the restaurant. He's opening because he says he and his staff are taking serious precautionary measures.
And he's opening because he feels enough is enough.
"First off, one death is too many. It can happen to any of us, so for that reason I can understand why they're doing it," Brice says about the county order to close the restaurants. "But I came to the realization that you got Walgreens open, Target open, Walmart open, all these grocery stores that are not gonna take the precautionary measures that we're gonna take ... We can't let the government pick who wins and who loses."
Brice, who owns the Federal American Grill in Rice Military and opened the Hedwig Village location in late February, started forming a re-opening strategy with his management team a week ago before talking with staff members. If those employees don't want to work, they're not being penalized and will remain employed while staying home. But those who do will have their temperature taken when clocking in. They'll wear gloves and masks and sanitize constantly.
Meanwhile, the restaurant will produce paper menus that will be disposed after they're used once. Guests can pay through Venmo. A sign at the front of the restaurant will inform guests to adhere to social distancing requirements, and those who don't will be asked to leave. Guests won't have their temperature taken, but if Federal staff believes anyone is showing signs of illness, they'll also be asked to leave.
Brice is doing a dry run of service with staff today, they'll run through once more Friday before opening the doors. There's a chance county officials will be there when those doors open, too.
"They could potentially shut us down," says Brice. "I'm not trying to break any laws, I'm just trying to help the economy. We have to get it back."
Because Federal is the first restaurant to open a dining room since the March 16 order, Brice's announcement was immediate news, causing a clamor on social media and in online message boards. Nearly 1,000 people have called the restaurant, either to express their thoughts or to snatch a table. Brice says he's chatted on the phone with only one person against his announcement, and that brought a productive conversation, but mostly it's been support, especially from other restaurant owners and chefs.
"I didn't expect this to blow up the way that it did," he says. "If the media wasn't involved I would've just opened quietly."
Nonetheless, all eyes will be on Hedwig Village on Friday.
*This story has been corrected to identify Lina Hidalgo as the Harris County Judge.