“As far as the normal ebbs and flows of business here, being in West campus we have it down to a science now, but this mixes things up,” Hilo said. “The Drag is just weird anyway. It's a fickle place."
Hilo’s restaurant is located along Guadalupe Street in Central Austin, known as The Drag, a line of businesses and shops that changes every few months due to high-rent and a lack of steady streams of customers throughout the year. But coronavirus, and its rapidly spreading respiratory disease COVID-19, has brought new challenges to the already volatile business environment.
“One of the scary parts, is that we don't know exactly what it looks like,” Hilo said. “In our customers and with our staff, it seems like it should be this really real almost life-changing event. In a way it is, but in a way like you kind of just carry on as normal.”
Many of the businesses close completely over winter break, when students leave for the holidays, or they reduce their hours in the summer or spring break when much of the campus is gone. Hilo said she plans for these off-periods by reducing output, but that typically she doesn’t have to reduce the number of hours her employees work because many of them, like other students, leave campus during spring break.
Eric Stefano, the manager of the Mediterranean restaurant Cava, said he does the same. However, he said the extended spring break could really hurt business, and the potential for a switch to online classes makes him worry that Cava will be stripped of its “lifeline”—students.
“It all just kind of hit today,” Stefano said. “It'll be interesting to see what happens the next couple weeks.”
But with UT’s extended spring break announced March 11, some restaurants said there was no way to prepare for the potential absence of students for an extra week.
The Turkish restaurant MezzeMe already had to lay off one of its employees in preparation for potentially reduced sales in the coming weeks, assistant manager Dario Castillo said. MezzeMe opened on The Drag in October across the street from the three buildings that house the majority of communication classes at UT.
“Everybody who comes in is a student,” said Castillo, adding that the restaurant had only seen 13 customers during the first three hours after opening at 11 a.m. “If nobody’s going to school, then we have no customers. That [is] going to hit us here pretty hard. We might need to start shutting down earlier.”
Not all businesses have seen a decline in customers. The owner of Jenn’s Copies, Dobbins Hillhouse, said most of his sales happen at the start of each semester, so this part of the year is already his slow season.
“In January, it would’ve been really bad,” Hillhouse said. “It'll impact us some, but not as bad as others I'm sure.”
Like Pizza Press, Austin-based Kerbey Lane was packed Friday afternoon, even former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was there to eat. Shift leader Luke Bender said business had been steady all day, but that he couldn’t be sure how things would change in the coming days.
As an added precaution, Bender and Hilo both said they increased the sanitization regimens in their restaurants. Bender said he spent Friday morning cleaning frequently used surfaces, including menus, with a wash of hydrogen peroxide before their usual cleaning with sanitizer, even though it could potentially damage the menus.
“We just have to switch. We have to use the peroxide because that's the only way to make sure that these things are going to be clean,” Bender said.
Bender added that Kerbey Lane has expanded access to paid vacation time to all employees to help ensure no one comes in to work sick just because they need the money to pay bills.
Hilo said she upped the concentration of the sanitizer her restaurant uses, saying that she would rather risk damage to her tables than spread the coronavirus should someone come in who has been exposed.
“You don't make it too high or else it could be so strong that it could ruin the tables, but ... that's what we have to do,” Hilo said.
At Pizza Press, Hilo said she has been asking almost every customer who has come in recently about their plans for the break or if the school switches to online classes. More than half said they planned to stay in Austin, citing worries about going home and spreading the virus to family or contracting it while traveling and bringing it back here, Hilo said.
For now, Hilo said she remains unworried about a potential slash to her business.
“[Coronavirus] is keeping people local. It's keeping people just kind of a little bit more tight-knit in their own communities rather than traveling,” Hilo said. “I feel like that’s so Texan. It's not even really about you. It's not about the individual. It's more about passing it on. As college students, we kind of realize that the risk is everywhere, but the risk is really us passing it to other people.”