Establishments split on how to safely reopen doors to general public

(Designed by Mel Stefka/Community Impact Newspaper)
(Designed by Mel Stefka/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Designed by Mel Stefka/Community Impact Newspaper)

After two months of operating under the coronavirus pandemic, business and restaurant owners across Northwest Austin in mid-May got the go-ahead that many were waiting on. Quarantine is effectively over. Customers can come inside.

For many, the allowance presents a golden opportunity, however faint it may be, to generate much-needed revenue at a time when cash flow has fallen off a cliff.

But other business owners are now forced to weigh the decision to stay closed and gate off whatever money can be made with restrictive capacity limits, or open their doors and potentially put themselves and their employees at risk.

On May 18, Gov. Greg Abbott made it official—Texas has entered Phase 2 of his plan to reopen the state’s economy.

This phase expands restaurant capacity for dine-in services to 50%, granted the restaurants can guarantee safe social distancing standards. In the weekend leading up to the announcement, gyms and offices across Austin had prepared to open May 18 following the governor’s allowance to do so the week prior.

But whereas the first phase of Texas’ plan permitted the public to interact with businesses at a trickle, the second phase of Abbott’s reopening plan will open the floodgates. Most businesses—bars, bowling alleys, rodeos, bingo halls, zoos, aquariums, day camps and more—will be permitted to open by the end of May.

Business owners attempt to cut risk

On May 8, barbershops and salons across Texas were allowed to open to the public, provided they could ensure at least 6 feet of social distancing between workstations.

Some barbershop and salon owners made the decision to open May 8, including Scott Ma, who owns the Lavish Nails and Spa location near the intersection of Loop 360 and

RM 2222. Others, such as Reunion Barbershop owner Ashley “Ace” Gibbs, are going to take a little more time—she plans to open June 1. Gibbs said she was “anxious” when she sat down to watch the governor’s May 5 press conference. She has

Type 1 diabetes, so if she were to contract the coronavirus, it would be harder for her to recover than a person without underlying health conditions.

When she reopens Reunion Barbershop, appointment slots will be longer to allow for extra sanitation procedures, so she will be seeing fewer customers at her shop.

“I feel like the beginning of June is safest; it gives me time to kind of see the scientific data behind the reopening and what they’re going to entail,” she said.

Even with so much riding on new income coming in, Ma is taking a cautious approach to reopening. He installed new shields on all the manicure tables ahead of the opening, and when Lavish opened May 8, customers were no longer able to get a manicure and pedicure at the same time. Instead, they now have to wait to get the services separately.Because of the limited appointments and hours—as well as some hesitation on the employees’ part in returning—only about half of the technicians will be coming back at Lavish, Ma said.

“We’re not going to be fully staffed. It’s tough, but we have to get back,” Ma said.

Gym owners work out safe strategies

Gym One in North Austin opened its doors May 18, the first day permissible by state law. Ahead of the opening, the locally owned gym added a page to its website outlining its new rules to access the gym during the coronavirus pandemic.Prior to coming in to work out, Gym One manager Nick Sanquilly said members must submit to a fever reading from a temperature gun and sanitize their hands. Everyone inside the gym is also asked to wear a mask.

Sanquilly said the gym has closed off certain sections from use, including the gym’s lockers, showers and cardio equipment, such as treadmills.

“Wearing a mask is not conducive for cardio anyways,” Sanquilly said.

On its first day open in two months, Sanquilly told Community Impact Newspaper that fewer people were working out in the gym than what Gym One’s 25% capacity allowed. While the gym previously would have up to 40 people working out at a time before the pandemic started, Sanquilly said the gym was seeing five to 10 people inside together.

“The people who did come in were very respectful, very happy to get back in here and do something,” Sanquilly said.

Restaurants open for table service

Just before noon on May 2, a lone customer wearing a protective face mask walked into Emerald Tavern Games and Cafe in North Austin, ordered a beer at the bar and sat down at a table to drink it. That customer, owner Erich Weidner said, was the first to be served food or drink inside his restaurant since March 17.

Emerald Tavern—which operates as a restaurant, cafe, bar and gaming store—returned with a soft opening May 1. Weidner said it was an easy decision, as his business needs a lifeline and will take any chance to bring in revenue. While Emerald Tavern continued curbside pickup service for its food offerings throughout the state-mandated closures, Weidner said he collected the same amount of revenue throughout April that he collected in just four days in February.

Sales are beginning to pick back up, Weidner said—through mid-May, Emerald Tavern’s monthly revenues had already outpaced what it made in April—but receipts are still a fraction of what they once were.

“To put it in perspective, Saturday is typically our busiest and highest revenue day. Our best Saturday of [May] is half of what we used to do on a Monday,” Weidner said. “No business is going to be successful operating at 25%-50% capacity.”

While Emerald Tavern has been legally allowed to open its dining room since the beginning of the month, other establishments—such as bars, wine rooms and craft breweries—had to wait on the governor’s approval for weeks.

Circle Brewing, one of the city’s oldest craft brewing establishments in North Austin, started outlining its plan to reopen May 22 as soon as Abbott’s May 18 press conference ended. As part of Phase 2 of Abbott’s plan, craft breweries were permitted to open their taprooms to customers May 22.

It is something that bars across Texas have been asking for since April. The Texas Bar and Nightclub Association on April 20 created a list of self-regulations it would impose to operate safely.

Ben Sabel, president, founder and brewer at Circle Brewing, said the process will not be as easy as simply opening its doors and limiting the number of customers inside the taproom. Following Abbott’s announcement, Sabel told Community Impact Newspaper that his brewery was immediately on the hunt for supplies necessary to reopen.

“The item we’re trying to get our hands on right now is hand sanitizer,” Sabel told Community Impact Newspaper. “If we can’t get our hands on hand sanitizer, we simply can’t reopen the taproom. It is just not safe.”

Welcoming customers into his brewery presents its own challenge, Sabel said. In order to make sure customers comply with the rules set out when they enter Circle Brewing’s patio or taproom, he may need more staff to supervise. Without supervision, Sabel said, the brewery may be putting its own staff at risk.

“It is easy to slip back into old habits, especially when you’re having a good time and having a few beers,” Sabel said.

That is not an unfounded fear. In early May, Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said health care, construction and grocery store workers—all workers deemed to be essential—make up a significant portion of new coronavirus cases in Travis County.

“We’re excited to reopen and get back to regular business, but doing it in a way that’s safe not only for our customers, but our staff,” Sabel said.

Iain Oldman - Jack Flagler