“I’m not going to be the first go into the haunted house,” said Kevin Naderi, owner of Montrose restaurant Roost. "We don’t want to be any frontrunners here and part of a catalyst in a change.”
Naderi joins a group of Houston restaurant owners announcing similar plans. Social media posts from restaurants including Squable, Down House, Golden Bagels & Coffee, New York Deli & Coffee Shop and Jus' Mac, among others, have expressed reluctance to open their dining rooms.
Some cite fears over potentially exposing staff and customers to the virus while others say operating at 25% creates more financial challenges than solutions.
“Max occupancy for me is 48 seats, so opening for 12 people is almost comical,” Naderi said.
The financial calculations prove as complicated as the social calculations, said Gretchen Todd, owner of Juice Girl and Over the Moon, local juice and ice cream shops.
“I just hope that people can be compassionate whichever way a business or an individual decides to go,” she said. “It’s scary to post anything because you don’t know how someone is going to take it. Some people will say, ‘We’re not going to support a business if they open’ and some people say, ‘If they don’t open, they don’t need the money.’”
The Texas Restaurant Association endorsed Governor Greg Abbott’s rollout of the reopening plan April 28.
Abbott said if public health data shows Texas is continuing to contain the coronavirus over the course of two weeks, capacity will be expanded at dine-in areas to 50% of capacity on May 18. The orders are allowing permission, Abbott said, not mandating openings.
“There was a sigh of relief for a date and then a sigh of relief that you’re not required to open. If you’re not ready, you can take the time do it right,” Texas Restaurant Association President Emily Williams Knight said. “We don’t want to end up back in a shelter in place.”
Naderi said he is eyeing May 18 as a potential opening date for his dining room, which is when the next phase of restrictions could lift under state and federal guidelines.
“If we get to a place where we can enter Phase 2 and have 50% capacity, that looks pretty promising,” he said.
Todd was able to keep on her additional full-time staff although she noted that they were struggling with the reduced hours and had not received partial unemployment payments from the state. For that reason, she does not want to push off opening too long. She said she plans to wait for Phase 2 to keep her family, who work with her, safe.
Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast AFL CIO is pushing for more formal workplace protections for workers who will be interacting with the public as businesses reopen, according to an April 29 release.
“The Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation today again called on Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Harris County Commissioner[s] to pass work safe rules,” the statement read. “These rules should include requirements for the provision of adequate personal protective equipment, strong health and safety protocols, and protections against retaliation if their work sites aren't safe.”
The state's guidelines for reopening restaurants do not include requirements for PPE, except to encourage the use of face masks. It also spells out restrictions such as seating tables at least six feet apart and not allowing more than six guests per table.
The city of Houston and Harris County have been increasing test capacity in recent weeks and announced separate plans to hire more contract tracers to help contain new cases.
Jack Flagler contributed to this report.