For the second time in 2 1/2 years, Assistant General Manager Rachel Wolfe had to temporarily lay off her entire front-of-house staff at Raffa’s Waterfront Grill in Kingwood.
The first time came after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, when the restaurant received several feet of water and had to close for more than a year.
It happened again in mid-March, when all Texas restaurants were told to close dining rooms to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Wolfe had to furlough 14 servers, four bussers, four hostesses and three bartenders.
“We’re not cleaning out muck and throwing away furniture,” she said of how it compares to Harvey. “We have electricity and water, but it’s just so devastating. Maybe not physically, but the emotional impact on the community and the staff.”
Efforts to stop the spread of the virus have caused large sectors of business to slow down or cease in the Lake Houston area. Humble and New Caney ISDs have also closed their buildings until mid-April.
As city, county and state officials update guidelines almost daily to help curb the spread of the virus, local businesses and school districts are adapting by offering new services during this time.
Although Humble, Kingwood and Atascocita have endured hardships in the last several years, Mark Mitchell, the president of the Lake Houston Economic Development Partnership, said the uncertainty of how long the virus could last is causing officials to worry.
“With this being a global pandemic and not really having line of sight when we’re going to be able to reopen establishments, congregate in large masses, it’s having a significantly negative impact,” Mitchell said.
Local businesses hit hardest
Gov. Greg Abbott issued statewide guidelines March 19 prohibiting mass gatherings of 10 or more people and mandating bars and restaurants close their dining rooms until midnight April 3. Restaurants are only able to offer takeout and delivery as of press time March 30.
The move affects thousands of employees, with retail trade as well as accommodation and food services being the two biggest job sectors in the Lake Houston area, according to 2019 employment data from Esri, a geographic information system company. Esri data shows the two industries employ more than 30% of the area’s job market.
Several days into Harris County’s restaurant mandate on March 18, employees at Italiano’s Restaurant in Humble were cleaning carpets and polishing chairs to stay busy.
General Manager Elaine Kumbara said she was doing her best to give staff members a few hours to work per week. Although the business had to halt dine-in services and catering, which accounted for roughly 30% of business, Kumbara said her family has no intention of allowing the virus to close down the restaurants.
“We’re not going to close. If we have to be here ourselves, we’re going to be here,” she said. “We don’t have to get paid.”
Jenna Armstrong, president of the Lake Houston Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is bringing visibility to local businesses with social media campaigns and offering guidance to business owners to help them make it through this difficult time.
“We’ve proven to be a pretty strong and resilient community,” Armstrong said. “If there’s any community that can come out of this and know how to pull out of this quickly, it’s going to be our community.”
Additionally, local businesses will soon see relief from a $2.1 trillion federal stimulus package that will give money to individuals and small businesses. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law March 27.
A switch to virtual learning
Humble and New Caney ISDs closed down their buildings until April 10 and April 19, respectively, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
HISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said the district is focusing on feeding students who normally benefited from free and reduced-price meals as well as implementing learning opportunities for the district’s roughly 45,000 students.
“Our focus is on encouraging social distancing and supporting our health care community and making sure our staff and communities stay healthy during this important time,” she said.
By press time, HISD had provided more than 102,155 breakfast and lunch meals to students, and NCISD had provided 14,988 meals.
Meanwhile, both districts began rolling out distance-learning systems the week of March 16. HISD has largely trusted teachers to determine the best approach to instructing students in their classrooms, Fagen said.
James Gaylord, who is an architecture teacher at Summer Creek High School, said he has been keeping in contact with his students via video conferencing applications. Gaylord said he also plans to use the apps as a presentation tool to initiate classroom discussions.
“We’ve got kind of a unique opportunity for them to think outside the four classroom walls,” he said. “Now they can spend a little bit more time delving into things that interest them.”
At NCISD, district officials spent several days issuing Chromebooks to second- to fourth-grade students to help with distance learning. Kristi Shofner, the executive director of instruction for NCISD, said all fifth- to 12th-grade students already have issued laptops.
“We do have some expectations for our teachers, and of course our teachers want to be in contact with our kids and checking on those families, so we do have a plan in place that will allow for instruction to continue,” Shofner said.
Both districts have been unable to comment on how school closures could affect seniors’ ability to graduate on time.
NCISD Superintendent Kenn Franklin said while many things are still uncertain, the district is tackling the pandemic on a day-by-day basis.
“The unknown [is the biggest challenge], and the best way to tackle the unknown is to go one day at a time,” he said. “I think it’s important that none of us lose sight of the ultimate goal, and the ultimate goal is our children.”