With its debut in San Antonio set for mid-March, the third location of the entertainment center, restaurant, and sports bar known as Chicken N Pickle had to put off its grand opening plans in keeping with stay-home orders.

A month after a quiet opening in May, however, the complex again locked its doors when an employee tested positive for coronavirus. Like the virus itself, the new establishment’s intermittent opening and closing were not predicted or planned for.

“The pandemic was not part of our business model,” said company spokeswoman Christine Kemper.

Food and beverage, more than any industry in the nation, has suffered the most significant sales and job losses since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to the National Restaurant Association, which conducted an economic impact survey in mid-April. At the time, the national advocate for restaurant owners estimated the industry will have lost $240 billion in sales by the end of this year.

While restaurant employment is up since hitting the skids in April, sales remain well below normal levels and a hoped-for recovery may be slower in coming. The recent spike in coronavirus cases in many parts of the country, including San Antonio, has renewed calls for people to stay home and raised questions about whether reopening the economy has happened too fast.

On June 12, phase 3 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to open Texas following weeks of lockdown, restaurants were permitted to open at 75 percent capacity, and bars at 50 percent.

On Friday, as the number of cases in the state has risen sharply, Abbott rolled back those reopening plans, ordering bars to close back down again beginning at noon and capping restaurant capacity at 50 percent starting Monday.

Not every establishment had complied with the earlier reopening capacity rules, while others have exceeded the requirements.

A week later, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Association (TABC) began issuing 30-day suspensions to bars and restaurants found violating customer capacity limits. In all, 17 bars have been suspended statewide.

The first establishment in San Antonio to be issued a citation and temporarily shuttered was the far Northside bar Burnhouse. A man who answered the phone at Burnhouse was unable to comment, and subsequent calls were not returned.

TABC’s Operation Safe Open continues Friday with officers monitoring capacity. “The inspections are conducted by undercover teams who gather evidence at locations where a violation is believed to have occurred,” a TABC spokesman said in an email. “That evidence is then reviewed by members of our enforcement and legal teams, who will make a determination on whether a violation took place.”

Preempting Contagion

In some cases, owners did not wait for an agency or a worsening outbreak of coronavirus to force their doors closed. Chad Carey recently shut down operations at his Barbaro and Hot Joy restaurants for the sake of his employees. Carey’s other establishments, the wine shop Little Death and Rumble, a bar on North St. Mary’s Street, remain open for outdoor patio service, where there’s no food service and social distancing is easier to manage.

A man runs along North St. Mary’s Street near Little Death wine bar, which offers patio service. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“From a bar, club, and restaurant operator perspective, crowd control is always really, really difficult, certainly when you mix in drinking and certainly when you mix in younger people,” Carey said. Expecting a bar’s workers, who tend to be young, to manage social distancing in those conditions “is a little bit naïve,” he said.

Carey recently closed his restaurants for at least two weeks to protect his employees from both the virus and the worry of getting sick.

“In our business, I just think that there’s too much risk with the data that we have today,” he said Monday after a spike in cases in San Antonio. “You’ve got the data, the accumulated stress and strain of doing this with our staff – it was really starting to wear on them, and it was becoming harder and harder to watch that.”

People in the food service business are “playing Russian roulette with the odds stacked against them,” he added. “It’s just a matter of time before somebody … tests positive.”

That’s in fact what drove Chicken N Pickle and a number of other local food and beverage outlets, including Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia, to close at least temporarily, even though State protocols for restaurants do not require a restaurant to close when an employee tests positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Chicken N Pickle, at 5215 UTSA Blvd., is an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex large enough to hold 1,000 people. Along with a casual restaurant and sports bar, pickleball courts, pingpong, and a variety of yard games, the family-friendly venue also offers outdoor concerts, corporate events, and gathering spaces.

As has happened in several other local restaurants and bars in recent days, Chicken N Pickle’s management closed the complex June 12 when an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

“So we immediately shut down just in an abundance of caution,” Kemper said. “Then we later talked to the health department and they said you really didn’t need to do that,” because the employee was asymptomatic. During the time it was closed, the restaurant was deep-cleaned, she said, and all 200 employees were tested, with a few turning up positive.

Kemper said that despite the pandemic-driven turmoil in the restaurant industry, the owners are confident Chicken N Pickle will thrive.

“It’s no fun to put in a brand-new, fantastic venue, and then kind of limit the number of people who come visit, but we’re in it for the long haul,” she said. “We recognize the landscape is going to be rough, but we also … think the long-term viability of Chicken N Pickle in San Antonio is going to be very strong. This just probably won’t be our record year.”

From right: Chris James and Derek Carter play cornhole at Chicken N Pickle. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Difficult Choices

Mi Tierra’s Pete Cortez said he waited until restaurants could open at 75 percent capacity before opening two of the five La Familia Cortez establishments he manages as chief operating officer. But it was inevitable that, with 700 employees, some would be exposed to the virus or get sick themselves, he said.

“In both cases, it had already been at least a week almost since they had been on duty,” Cortez said. “Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to close the restaurant to go through the whole re-sanitation process again. The community has trusted us since 1941 to take care of them and take care of our team members and we’re not going to stop now.”

Mi Tierra and La Margarita have reopened, but with tourism at an all-time low, the downtown restaurants have not yet reached the allowed capacity. Mariachi trios still perform there, but with face coverings.

As a member of the mayor’s COVID-19 economic transition team, Cortez is troubled by the difficult choices between reopening the economy and safeguarding people from the virus.

“Looking at a lot of data and talking about the implications of any second shutdown and knowing how devastating that would be, we … were not going to reopen without a lot of measures in place from day one,” Cortez said, which include requiring masks, which the restaurant sells to customers at cost.  

“We had customers who were upset and sometimes belligerent, but we had security [officers], which was an additional cost, [because] we were seeing what was happening in other parts of the country,” he said, referencing reports of assaults in some retail stores. In other cases, visitors to the restaurant might be from other places and don’t know about the mandate.

Cortez also made the decision to purchase electrostatic disinfecting machines to sanitize restaurants, a big expense he feels is necessary. “We don’t know when this is going to go away,” he said.

But he also thinks the industry will get through this time – “hopefully sooner rather than later. Pray for a vaccine, because that’s ultimately what’s going to resolve this.”

Mi Tierra’s Pete Cortez helps customers in March, when the restaurant first reopened as a mercado. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Restaurant Promise

After weeks of being closed, the restaurant Mixtli reopened for curbside pickup first, then added dining room service June 10, seating only eight people. But when the number of positive cases jumped in San Antonio, co-owners Diego Galicia and Rico Torres again chose to close the small dining room for a few days.

“We believed that we could safely open the restaurant, but we can’t, we can’t, it’s impossible,” Galicia said of that decision. While dining service started again on Wednesday after a thorough cleaning, those who make reservations are warned that the restaurant could close again at any time.

For that reason, Galicia is disappointed when he sees people not wearing masks in public. “If everybody could just follow the rules, we will be in a whole different place,” he said. Instead, the industry remains in limbo. “If we have to shut it down again, we will.”

The Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) has said that 77 percent of consumers say they plan to reduce visits to restaurants in the future due to health concerns. In response, the TRA recently created a program, Restaurant Promise Certification, that allows restaurant owners to agree to secret inspections of their sanitation protocols and earn a certification decal that would demonstrate they had passed.  

“This is a big win for our industry and will continue to build trust between consumers and restaurants,” stated Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of TRA.

In the meantime, it is clear restaurants and bars and dining out will stay at the center of debates about reopening the economy and protecting public health. In a ranking of public places on the risk level of transmitting the virus, the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health ranked restaurants medium risk and bars high risk.

As restaurants began to reopen in late May, the Centers for Disease Control published a list of dos and don’ts for restaurants and bars for reopening amid the pandemic.

Among the guidelines is a rule that servers should wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as customers – when they’re not eating and drinking, that is. One study showed that, in an unventilated room, droplets produced by conversation could linger in the air for as long as 14 minutes.

“I don’t go [to restaurants],” said Dr. Claudia Miller, an environmental scientific consultant and professor emeritus in family and community medicine at UT Health San Antonio. Miller believes politics and economics should not outweigh public health in this pandemic.

“Health is so critical and this virus is so incredibly contagious, and people are taking it home with them and infecting others,” she said. “It’s really important to go with the data and we’re behind the curve on that … this stuff is everywhere.”

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.