Restrictions on businesses and restaurants in the Lake Conroe area aimed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus were loosened in early May, allowing some businesses to open as the early phases of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening plan went into effect.

Abbott’s guidelines that went into effect May 1 allowed establishments such as malls and restaurants to resume in-person operations with 25% capacity limitations. By May 8, barber shops and salons were allowed to open with some restrictions, and on May 18, gyms were able to open.

"It’s hard to get rid of this virus because it is so contagious,” Abbott said at an April 27 press conference. “So we’re not just going to open up and hope for the best. Instead, we will put measures in place that will help businesses open while also containing the virus and keeping Texans safe.”

These restrictions have led to widespread unemployment across the state. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, 1.04 million people filed unemployment insurance claims between March 25 and April 25. In the Conroe and Montgomery area, there were 6,857 unemployment insurance claimants, which accounts for roughly 7.2% of the area’s total workforce.

Local reactions to Abbott’s orders were mixed. Some Montgomery County businesses have hesitated to open for customers, while other residents and county officials have pushed for opening the county even ahead of Abbott’s orders.

Shannan Reid, the director of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, said she has been urging businesses that are opening to go through certain steps to ensure the safety of their staff and customers.•“On the community front, it is interesting just how many people are nervous and very cautious even though we talk a big talk about wanting to be fully open,” Reid said. “They are curious about safety measures that businesses are taking.”

Safe service

On May 5, Abbott announced barbershops and salons were allowed to open May 8, and gyms were allowed to open May 18. Restaurants were potentially allowed to expand from 25% capacity to 50% capacity by May 18 as well.

“No one is being required to open up,” Abbott said at a May 5 press conference. “Every owner of every salon should use their own best judgment about when it is going to be best for them to safely reopen.”

Marisa Philipello, the owner of Phil’s Roadhouse in Montgomery, has been offering to-go and delivery services throughout the closure. However, Philipello said she would not reopen to 25% capacity because a quarter of her usual 130-people capacity is simply not enough to warrant bringing her staff back on-site.

“For the safety of the staff ... and the safety of our customers, we want to wait,” Philipello said.

Even though the financial pressure for both herself and her employees is growing, Philipello said she wants to see how other businesses handle opening.

One of those businesses is the Southern Star Brewing Co. in Conroe. Dave Fougeron, the brewery’s president, said he will not open the indoor taproom but used the 13.5 acres the brewery sits on to effectively social distance customers.

“A taproom ... has traditionally provided a place for people to sit and relax and hang out with each other and a sense of community especially,” Fougeron said. “So we’re anxious to open back.”

Brandon Pollock, the owner of Plus-Forty-Fitness in Conroe, said he was frustrated his gym was closed at all. He said as a private gym, he only works with one guest at a time.

“I’m pretty frustrated by the whole thing and ready to work,” Pollock said. “I’ve advertised for years that I am the cleanest facility in Conroe."

Although he has received some support through the Payroll Protection Program and Small Business Administration loans—components of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—Pollock said the loss of income from the closure has been significant.

Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack said at a May 12 Commissioners Court meeting he felt the 25% capacity rule was not sufficient for most businesses to justify opening.

“Most restaurants can’t afford to operate on 25% capacity,” he said. “Some of the rules that go along with opening are so arduous that it makes it not even worth it.”

Government grievances

When Abbott initially ordered restaurants could open at 25% occupancy May 1, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said in an April 28 Commissioners Court meeting that he interpreted Abbott’s order as meaning all businesses may open May 1, but individuals should use their discretion on visiting salons, gyms and other nonessential businesses.

After receiving clarification from Abbott that only certain businesses were allowed to open, Keough still said his goal was to get businesses open as soon as possible while being in compliance with the governor’s order.

“I work very hard, and I will continue to work hard to get these businesses open as fast as we can,” Keough said. “I believe it is essential for us as a county and the future of the state of Texas.”

On May 2, the day after Montgomery County began reopening restaurants, about 50 residents gathered in downtown Conroe to protest the government shutting down businesses and restricting activity during the coronavirus outbreak.

Organizer Angela Daniel said she coordinated the protest to inform the community about what she called “draconian measures” such as requirements for face masks and curfews.

“I’m not surprised that the government would try to implement those measures,” Daniel said. “But just the sheer level of acceptance and people wanting this to happen to them really made me sad.”

Daniel said she wanted the county to be “completely open.”

“I want everything to go back to normal, not the new normal,” Daniel said. “People have a right ... to take risks, to make calculated risks or to not take those risks.”

The event featured many speakers, including Eric Yollick, a candidate for 457th District Court judge; Billy Graff, former candidate for Montgomery County Precinct 1 commissioner; and Jon Bouche, former candidate for county chair of the Republican Party.

Bouche encouraged protesters to continue grassroots organizing to put pressure on elected officials. He said even if there is some risk for infection or death, he believes residents have the right to go out and live their lives normally.

“All of us are going to die, but not all of us are going to live,” Bouche said.

Misti Willingham, public information officer for Montgomery County Public Health District, said the district bases its recommendations on practices such as social distancing on federal guidelines. The MCPHD provides health education and clinical services as part of its mission, according to the district website.

“We, as a health care organization, follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines in our practice and advice to the community,” she said.