While South Austin businesses prepare to reopen May 1, concerns remain for many

Doc's Backyard owner Charles Milligan is preparing to reopen the restaurant's dining room and patio this week. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Doc's Backyard owner Charles Milligan is preparing to reopen the restaurant's dining room and patio this week. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

Doc's Backyard owner Charles Milligan is preparing to reopen the restaurant's dining room and patio this week. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

Editor's note: Although the Broken Spoke had planned to reopen May 1, the business has determined it will not be allowed to due to 51% of its revenues being based on alcohol sales instead of food sales. Similarly, Vista Brewing announced May 1 that it has decided not to open its beer garden this weekend. This story has been updated to reflect the change.

Many South Austin businesses are preparing to open May 1 after new health guidelines and relaxed operating restrictions were approved by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this week.

According to the new guidelines, all retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls will be permitted to reopen May 1 with an occupancy cap of 25%. Museums and libraries can also reopen with similar restrictions, while other restrictions have been lifted for medical professionals and places of worship.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said April 28 that he is concerned that the governor’s guidelines to reopen businesses—which override current guidelines in place for the city of Austin and Travis County—may go too far and that businesses may be opening too early during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, qualifying businesses in Travis County will be allowed to follow the governor’s opening guidelines if they choose to.

In Sunset Valley, where there are over 50 retailers in one square mile within the South Austin area, the city is trying to accommodate local businesses the best they can.

Sunset Valley Mayor Rose Cardona said April 28 that she expects to see a lot of changes over the next week in regards to business operations as owners decide to either reopen, change services or stay closed.

"The city of Sunset Valley is choosing to take the most liberal and open position we can that supports our commercial district,” she said.

Doc’s Backyard in Sunset Valley has been open for pickup orders, but owner Charles Milligan said the business has lost money every day it has been open over the past eight weeks. To stay open, he said he has had to furlough managers and staff.

“The week that we had to close down, we were on pace to have our best week ever [and were] going through our best year ever,” he said. “That ended up being one of our worst weeks, and this is going to be our worst year ever.”

Now, with an eye on reopening the dining room and patio at 11 a.m. Friday, Milligan said he is excited but also worried about safety about staffing as some employees choose to return to work and other to stay on unemployment.

“We did think about possibly shutting the doors and waiting for all of this to blow over, but the good news is the governor made that announcement, and we can try it out,” Milligan said. “Now, Friday comes, and we're able to open, but there's so much to do: so much to educate yourself on, so many changes to make and so much you have to educate your staff [about].”

Opening with caution

Businesses and restaurants in the area have been creating reopening plans for weeks and will finally get to initiate them May 1.

At Doc’s, Milligan said staff will be required to wear masks for at least the first week they are open, and the restaurant is eliminating physical menus to limit the spread of germs. Tables will be spaced out and will be sanitized fully between each party, which will be limited in size.

"This is new to everybody, so I want everyone to have a sense of safety and security," he said. “We're going to open up with cautious optimism because I want people in this community to feel comfortable that we're not just going to open our doors and wing it. We're doing everything we can to make this work.”

Vista Brewing in Driftwood had been planning to reopen its outdoor beer garden this weekend, limiting use to its members and is requiring reservations to make sure the capacity limit is maintained, according to co-owner Karen Killough.However, after initially announcing they would open, on May 1 the business decided not to open and would wait until a future date.

“We’ve been planning our phased reopening strategy but were surprised that the governor announced it with just four days’ notice,” Killough said in an email to Community Impact Newspaper on April 28. “Our No. 1 priority is to keep our Vista team and our guests safe.”

The brewery has continued running its curbside service for beer, produce and other groceries every day from 3-7 p.m. The service launched in March when the stay-at-home orders were initially put in place.

Similarly, to limit the number of dine-in guests, Carve American Grille in Southwest Austin will open its dining room only for reservations beginning May 1 while continuing to offer its previous to-go options.

James White, the longtime owner of South Austin honky-tonk Broken Spoke, said he believes the worst of the pandemic may be in the rear view. He had plans to open again May 1, however, the business has determined regulations will not allow them to due to 51% of the businesses revenues being based on alcohol sales instead of food sales.

Making sure the time is right

While many businesses are being permitted to open May 1, some have elected not to reopen just yet.

Moviehouse & Eatery, which has a location at Lantana Place, announced it is continuing to determine a reopening timeline and a way to safely protect staff and customers and will not reopen May 1. Similarly, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema locations will remain closed in Texas despite the order allowing theaters to reopen.

Chad Taylor, a managing partner of South Austin restaurant Brick's Pub, which has been open for call-in orders through the pandemic, said the staff does not plan to reopen the dining room at 25% on Friday.

“It's still too risky, in my opinion,” he said. “We have every intention of opening when the time is right. We just don't feel like it's that time yet."

Jack Allen’s Kitchen, which has had its locations closed since mid-March including in Southwest Austin, is planning to launch curbside offerings May 1. Owner Jack Gilmore said if things go well with the reopening, dining rooms could open by May 10.

“Go back to March 17: Everyone got kicked in the gut and could only remain open to go. We tried that at the beginning to get rid of what we had, but then, we decided to close it all to keep [our] staff and community safe,” Gillmore said. “Then, in late April, you’re told you can open May 1 at 25%, meaning a 300-seat restaurant can have 100 only, and then, there’s [a] grey area as to whether that includes staff.”

He said the confusion and continued safety concerns are why he will wait to open dining rooms and that he remains steadfast in wanting to keep his staff healthy.

“I do know we only have one shot at doing it right, and we’re going to make sure we do,” Gilmore said.

While Milligan said customers across the state will have to be patient as restaurants like Doc’s learn how to operate under current restrictions, he said he expects a good turnout this first weekend, as residents will get to enjoy the outdoor patio for the first time in weeks.

"There's a lot of risk you take with opening, but how I see it is: We've lost money for all this time,” Milligan said. “We're still going to lose money at 25%, but not as much, and maybe [the state] can get us to that 50% occupancy later this month because we do it right. I just hope we can get to a point that we're breaking even and can stay afloat, and then, when the time comes when things are considered normal again, we'll be back making money.”
By Nicholas Cicale
Nick has been with Community Impact Newspaper since 2016, working with the Lake Travis-Westlake and Southwest Austin-Dripping Springs editions. He previously worked as a reporter in Minnesota and earned a degree from Florida State University.


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