After being closed for more than a month lending to economic devastation in Texas with high unemployment rates and declining sales tax revenue, dining rooms around the state are poised to partially reopen on May 1, following an executive order issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — yet many Austin restaurants aren’t rushing to open their doors.
Owners cited a host of issues with the state’s rushed reopening timeline, including ongoing safety issues, an absence of adequate government health guidelines, a lack of quickly available staff, and the financial burden of being limited to operating at 25 percent capacity.
“Governor Abbott has emphatically placed the responsibility and enforcement of safety and protocol onto the restaurant owners,” said Rachelle Fox, co-owner of The Cavalier. “To open our doors in an effort to serve up to 25 percent of our capacity does not help our business.” The East Austin restaurant and bar will remain open only for takeout service for now, but is looking to potentially reopen its dining space on June 1.
“They closed us in a panic because they weren’t prepared and we were given no guidance,” said Adam Orman, co-owner of Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro, of state officials. “Now, they’ve had seven weeks to prepare and we see that there’s still no preparation that really takes into account small businesses or single parents.” The Austin Independent School District has closed all campuses for the rest of the school year.
The executive order was issued on Monday, giving restaurants less than four days to scramble together to safely resume service if they so chose to. “How are we supposed to prepare adequately to be interacting with customers again in three days,” asked Orman, “when so many of us have been almost completely out of our spaces for five weeks?”
Being allowed to reopen also puts restaurants in tricky situations when it comes to dealing with rent, bills, and insurance, as many have asked for leniencies from landlords and creditors while simultaneously attempting to secure loans to keep them afloat. The federally backed Paycheck Protection Program, which issued loans to help businesses keep their employees paid during interruption of services, ran out of money earlier this month. The program relaunched yesterday with an additional fund of $310 billion.
“This puts us at the mercy of landlords, utility companies, insurers, etc.,” Orman said. “They can point to us and say that we are allowed to be open now whether we think we shouldn’t be or our mayor thinks we shouldn’t be.” The governor’s order supersedes Austin’s local “stay home work safe” order, which originally closed dining rooms through May 8.
“The insurers are already denying claims because we were ‘permitted’ to do takeout,” Orman added.
“We are fully expecting the state and its public to not be aware of the long-lasting impact we are causing upon humanity,” said Miguel Cobos, the owner of Vaquero Taquero, “by reopening restaurants even with those absurd measures of no more than 10 people at a time.” Since the restaurant is sticking to its busy walkup window service, he is converting the North Campus dining room into additional kitchen space to keep up with business.
The Peached Tortilla owner Eric Silverstein doesn’t plan on reopening the Brentwood Asian-Southern restaurant’s dining room until May 18 “at the earliest,” but even then, that date isn’t set in stone — it might be in June. He wants to feel safe when he does reopen the restaurant, but isn’t finding comfort in available information. “I would need the science to back the call on our part,” he explained. “Meaning: data to support there is little to no risk of going out to eat if certain precautions are taken.”
Silverstein is working on developing his own health and safety protocol guidelines, making use of state orders, directives from Austin Public Health, and Peached’s own procedures. The restaurant is open for pickups.
“It is frustrating as a business owner not to have clear, concrete date to back up whether or not we should be opening up,” said Heidi Garbo, the owner of her namesake Wells Branch seafood restaurant, “but I have to err on the side of safety.” The restaurant won’t reopen its dining room on May 1, but will continue to-go services.
East Austin smoked meats spot La Barbecue isn’t going to open the dining areas at the barbecue restaurant’s location within and outside of its location at retail shop Quickie Pickie “anytime soon,” said co-owner Ali Clem. “Because the business is a line-based business for our customers” — where people stand in close proximity to each other while waiting to order food — “we plan on giving it a few more weeks to be safe.”
Under the governor’s orders, if there are no new outbreaks during this initial phase of reopening businesses, then phase two would begin after May 18, allowing the restaurant occupancy percentage to go up to 50 percent. But if there is a fresh outbreak, then businesses, including restaurants, would have to close again.
“Opening a restaurant is not flipping a switch,” Silverstein said. “And closing a second time could be a death sentence for a lot of us.”
Brandon Hunt, co-owner of Detroit-style pizza and food truck Via 313, echoed Silverstein’s sentiment, and is waiting to reopen his several dining rooms while still serving pickup pies. “We just can’t afford to open, then close, then open, then close, like we think might happen,” he explained. “I feel like this is a test over the next two weeks, and we will make the decision when the data is more clear.”
Even without the threat of repeated closures, for many restaurateurs, operating at 25 percent capacity won’t generate enough revenue to make the effort worthwhile, especially in an industry that already operates on such thin margins.
“It’s hard to see how we could be viable at 50 percent or below capacity,” said Salt & Time owner Ben Runkle. “I don’t know that the state’s new order changes much for smaller, independent restaurants. It’s hard to see many reigning at 25 percent capacity.” He predicts that when the capacity limit is upped to 50 percent, “that is probably when we’ll start to see more places reopen.
The East Austin butcher shop and restaurant will continue to operate as a market and grocery store with takeout and curbside pickup services. “We are fortunate to be in a situation where we are financially viable with our current retail focus,” Runkle explained, “so long as we can maintain that, we don’t have as much pressure to reopen for dine-in as most folks do.”
“Opening at 25 percent is not viable for our 40-seat restaurant,” explained Foreign & Domestic co-owner Sarah Heard, “as we would be adding back the costs we have cut and not serving nearly as many people as we are” through its current takeout model.
There are restaurants, however, taking their cues from the order and looking to adapt their models for more business. Heard is looking to add a self-serve seating area outside of the the North Loop building, where people can dine alfresco after picking up their food. She noted that she would clean the area after each use.
While East Austin Italian restaurant Intero isn’t going to reopen its dining room on Friday, it is looking at a staggered plan to reopen its dining spaces through the next two months, according to co-owner Krystal Craig. When these spaces do reopen, people will have to make reservations, and walk-in customers will have to wait in a designated area until a table frees up.
Still, for others, the executive order is welcomed news. Restaurants such as South Austin restaurant Terry Black’s Barbecue are more confident about resuming dining service come Friday. “We’re excited and optimistic about getting back our dining room” said co-owner Michael Black. “Dine-in at 25 percent of our occupancy isn’t ideal, but for us, it’s better than nothing.”
The barbecue plans on rehiring its staff, but Black noted that “those who don’t feel comfortable quite yet don’t have to, and can choose to sit out until they’re ready to come back.”
Whatever happens next, even the most cautious Austin restaurateurs admit that eventually, they will have to resume dine-in service. “Most restaurants are going to have to open up or close forever,” acknowledged Silverstein. “We can’t operate with closed dining rooms until 2021. Restarting after that long of a hiatus would be incredibly difficult.” This is why the timing of reopening based on scientific data is important.
“I would rather see what the hell happens in the next 30 days,” Silverstein added.