Gov. Greg Abbott’s Monday announcement that restaurants can reopen as soon as Friday – at a quarter of full capacity – isn’t causing some San Antonio restaurateurs to rush to open their dining rooms again.

The executive order issued by the governor stipulates a three-phase plan, beginning May 1 with the opening of nonessential businesses and restaurant dining rooms, which had formerly been ordered closed.

“We feel like we did a very good job of balancing economics and the impact for business as well as health, and the idea that we don’t want to have a rebound” of more coronavirus cases,” said Emily Williams Knight, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), during a media briefing following Abbott’s announcement. Knight was among the group that advised Abbott on the reopening plan, with her own team of advisors from the industry and guidelines from the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Abbott’s statement Monday made clear that health professionals were consulted prominently in the decision, and that “doctors and data” would be relied upon to make further decisions on the safety of reopening businesses.

If public health data compiled over a two-week period matches expectations, restaurants can expand to 50 percent capacity on May 18. The plan did not specify a date for full capacity.

In that sense, Texas government is not the only entity taking a wait-and-see approach.

Asked Tuesday if he planned to reopen his two Picnikins Café and Catering locations, company President Geoff Bezuidenhout said, “We haven’t made that decision yet.”

Bezuidenhout is also president of the San Antonio Restaurant Association, which is advising its members to make their own decisions whether to open their dining rooms.

“This is really an almost impossible decision,” he said. “You want to open, you want to show people that you’re here for them, and you need to get your business back online. But at the same time, there’s also social responsibility as well. And there’s still some unknowns. It’s just a really difficult situation to navigate.”

Bezuidenhout first plans to talk with his staff members to see if they are comfortable returning to work, then evaluate whether it’s worth it to reopen at reduced capacity. “I can tell you that the 25 percent occupancy is a real hindrance for the smaller guys,” he said, including his own 70-seat and 115-seat dining rooms.

While Knight acknowledged that reduced capacity is not a realistic option for many restaurateurs in the long term, she expressed optimism that the three-phase plan would bring them to full capacity soon. To help prepare for reopening, the TRA has compiled information and advice for food industry businesses to resume operations in the era of COVID-19, first identifying both restaurant employees and customers as potential spreaders of the virus.

TRA data suggests that the average person touches 300 surfaces in 30 minutes, which in a restaurant would include doors, chairs, tables, cutlery, dishes, napkins, condiment containers, and all restroom surfaces.

Despite restrictions involving continued social distancing, maximum parties of six, and stringent cleaning and additional safety supplies, some restaurants will reopen.

Louis Barrios of Los Barrios Family Restaurants intends to reopen all four of his restaurants. “We’re going to do everything to make the consumer feel comfortable,” Barrios said, including “cleaning the restaurants regularly, constantly. Face masks, social distancing – everything that we have to do to keep our employees and our customers safe now.”

Barrios cited the spaciousness of the restaurants as one advantage. “You don’t have to be concerned with social distancing – those tables are spread apart. No problem,” he said.

Chef Johnny Hernandez, owner of several restaurants, was already busy Tuesday changing La Gloria back into a regular restaurant from its temporary grocery market and takeout status. Hernandez said he plans to reopen both La Gloria locations on Friday with a reconfigured dining room layout to accommodate social distancing, and has already taken multiple calls for reservations.

“We’re excited. I mean, we’re getting calls,” he said. “People want to reserve tables.”

The Burgerteca location near the Blue Star Arts Complex will remain closed for the time being due to slow traffic, Hernandez said, but The Frutería will reopen in Southtown with seating for about 20 patrons at a time, down from its regular 82-person capacity.

“I was gonna wait it out,” he said, but then realized he could bring staff back gradually, as “practice” for new guidelines and requirements. “There’s a lot of a lot of training that we need to reinforce. … Let’s start learning this new way. Why wait?”

Chef Johnny Hernandez stands for a photo at his home. Photo by Scott Ball.
Chef Johnny Hernandez

Multiple challenges confront restaurants, whether they intend to reopen right away or not. The federal Paycheck Protection Program is one incentive Barrios cited, though it comes with strict stipulations and a requirement to rehire laid-off employees. However, unemployment compensation, at $600 per week, can exceed the pay of a typical part-time restaurant employee, which Barrios said represents misaligned policies.

Knight and U.S. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Austin) co-authored an April 23 Wall Street Journal article spelling out exactly that issue, for the 1.3 million employees of 50,000 Texas restaurants that generate $70 billion in annual revenue. “To say restaurants have been devastated by government decisions to close their livelihoods doesn’t do it justice,” they wrote, citing an overall 70 percent decline in sales despite creative pivots to business models catering to pandemic conditions.

In his statement Monday, Abbott said “millions of Texans have sacrificed their livelihoods” to help stop the spread of coronavirus, noting a decline in infection rates over the past 17 days.  

“Now, it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said. “We will open in a way that uses safe standards, for businesses, for their employees as well as for their customers.”

Doc Watkins, owner of the Jazz TX music and dining venue at the Pearl, said his decision not to reopen is not a political issue, but one of community safety. “I don’t think that Abbott knows whether it’s safe to open on Friday. It might be or it might not be, but I don’t think anybody really knows for sure, and I’ve yet to see any real indication that that we know enough to say that it’s safe.”

The Jazz, TX logo is illuminated in red neon lights at the entrance of the speakeasy style space. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Jazz, TX is housed in a small basement speakeasy style bar and stage that would make social distancing efforts difficult. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Asked if he would open Mr. Juicy, an Olmos Park burger spot, for dining room business, owner Andrew Weissman said no.

“I’m concerned,” he said. “I think it’s too soon.” For now, both Mr. Juicy and Weissman’s Sip café downtown will stay with curbside pickup. The decision to reopen his Signature restaurant at the La Cantera Resort & Spa lies with its parent company USAA, he said.

Weissman said he would definitely not reopen within the next month. “I’m just gonna wait and see how this goes, because I do know that if, God forbid, we were to have a big spike in people getting sick again, that’s going to be a death blow to in-house dining.”

Cured Chef and owner Steve McHugh cheated death once and is not willing to take unnecessary risks for little gain, he said. “We’re in a bit of a different boat than a lot of other people because of the fact that I have a compromised immune system with my cancer in the past,” he said.

“I just don’t know if it’s worth risking your life for, you know, ‘Let’s open 25 percent of our restaurant.’ … I don’t think as a country we’ve gotten far enough ahead of this thing that I feel safe” reopening, he said.

McHugh said one good thing about the option to reopen is the potential for serving drinks, “because we’ve got thousands upon thousands of dollars of alcohol that we can’t do anything with. … Maybe you’re going to see restaurants opening up a small portion of their areas so that they can move some of their booze.”

Beyond that limited option and continuing curbside pickup service, McHugh said he is closely watching how reopening businesses works elsewhere. Watkins also said he has paid close attention to the situation in other countries and locations around the U.S., and will use that knowledge to guide his decisions.

Watkins took the total shutdown route, laying off employees and helping them get unemployment benefits. He said operating at 25 percent capacity is a “terrible” notion in a business that already operates at single-digit margins, but said his Pearl landlords and investors, combined with prior consistent success, have enabled him to sustain his business for the time being.

“I don’t feel like our staying closed is going to adversely affect the world,” Watkins said, “but us opening up too soon might adversely affect our community, and I’m not willing to take that risk until I have more confidence that’s the right thing to do.”

Jackie Wang contributed to this report.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...