Businesses, local governments in The Woodlands area take first steps toward reopening

Customers waited in lines outside businesses in The Woodlands May 1 as limited reopenings began.(Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
Customers waited in lines outside businesses in The Woodlands May 1 as limited reopenings began.(Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)

Customers waited in lines outside businesses in The Woodlands May 1 as limited reopenings began.(Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)

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Businesses in The Woodlands area began to open at 25% capacity May 1. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
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Businesses in The Woodlands area began to open at 25% capacity May 1. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
Restrictions in south Montgomery County intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus outbreak began to ease May 1 when some businesses were permitted to reopen with limited occupancy under Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased plan to restart the Texas economy.

Abbott’s guidelines allowed establishments such as malls and restaurants to resume in-person operations with capacity limitations beginning May 1. Abbott’s statewide stay-at-home order for all Texans also expired April 30.

“It’s a fact: 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,” Abbott said.

The closures resulted in widespread unemployment claims in the state and in Montgomery County, where 22,397 unemployment claims were filed between March 18-April 18, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission.

Businesses in The Woodlands, including restaurants, began to reopen under the new guidelines beginning May 1.

Terry McBurney, founder and managing partner of The Republic Grille, reopened the restaurant’s Panther Creek location May 1 with sanitary precautions such as paper menus and spacing between tables. He said business had dropped around 40% during the spring.

“I expect customers will be cautious at first,” McBurney said. “At some point, restaurants need to open 100% and let consumers decide. Businesses cannot sustain long-term [closure] at 25% or 50%.”

Retail’s return

Through April, Abbott’s easing of restrictions allowed some businesses to return to partial in-store operations May 1. The first reopening phase permitted stores, restaurants, malls, movie theaters and museums to resume operations with 25% capacity.

On May 5, he announced salons and barbershops could open May 8, and gyms, nonessential manufacturers and businesses located in office buildings could open May 18. All businesses would operate at 25% capacity, Abbott said.

In The Woodlands, many retailers and shopping centers, such as Market Street and The Woodlands Mall, rolled out to-go shopping options and limited in-store business at the beginning of May.

“We trust our retailers and restaurants to adhere to the guidelines established by our state’s leaders, just as they have leading up to this transition,” Market Street Marketing Director Noemi Gonzalez said in a statement.

Gil Staley, president and CEO of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership, said in late April he believes the first reopening phase is a positive start for the region’s recovery.

“We’re excited to see retail, which has been so hard hit during this crisis, coming back in some way. Twenty-five percent is a start, and it’s one that we hope and pray that it won’t cause any spike in [the] number of COVID-19 cases. And we’ll wait and see after that, after we get at least 25% open,” Staley said.

Staley also said many companies may have their employees continue working from home while easing back toward a full return to their offices through the phased reopening.

The May 1 reopening date came after a weekslong downturn for the region, which saw hundreds of thousands of workers lose their jobs through March and April. According to Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership, more than 407,000 unemployment claims were filed between March 1 and April 25, a more than 1,400% increase in claims filed compared to the same period in 2019.

According to TWC data, among the more than 22,000 individuals in Montgomery County who filed for unemployment benefits from March 18-April 18, most were employed in full-service restaurants. Other industries listed as having the most five unemployment filings in the county were dentist’s offices, physician’s offices, professional employer organizations, and support activities for the oil and gas industries, according to TWC.

A total of 9,445 claims were filed in the seven ZIP codes in The Woodlands area, including the 77389 ZIP code in Harris County.

The claims grew throughout the month across the state. According to Cisco Gamez, TWC media and public relations specialist, TWC paid $183 million in statewide benefits to 137,000 claimants in the week of April 17, an increase from $41 million paid to 64,000 claimants in the first week of the month.

“I can definitely see this unemployment rate being the highest it’s ever been on record,” Jankowski said during an April 28 webinar.

Moving forward

JJ Hollie, president and CEO of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce, said in late April that members in the retail and restaurant industries were expressing excitement about getting a green light to reopen to start bringing in revenue, although they can only operate at 25% of their capacities, per Abbott’s orders.

“At the end of the day, none of us want to see a spike in the coronavirus cases that would force us to reclose,” Hollie said. “There’s a balance that has to be struck here, and I think Gov. Abbott is doing the best he can under the circumstances.”

Hollie added he is hoping for additional reopenings every two weeks or so, although the schedule will be dependent on the number of coronavirus cases and whether they are beginning to decrease.

The first additional openings were announced May 5 when Abbott extended partial openings to salons, gyms and several other facilities throughout May.

Hollie said there may be a struggle for establishments to stay below 25% occupancy. Restaurants, he said, will have an easier time controlling their numbers, as seating can be easily limited and access can be limited through reservations.

“That’s going to have a negative impact on your ability to rehire workers, but you’re going to have the opportunity to bring in some revenue and rehire some people,” Hollie said. “In a couple of weeks, you can go to 50%. We are hoping it will go from 50% to 100% pretty quickly.”

Abbott’s order will be updated again May 18, when it will be determined if occupancy can be increased to 50%, he said April 27.

Several restaurants operating in the area stated they will enforce additional sanitary measures and social distancing. Sorriso Modern Italian Kitchen, located at 2 Waterway Square Place, The Woodlands, opened for dine-in service May 1.

“All employees are trained on environmental cleaning and disinfection, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette,” Sorriso said in a statement.

Despite the statewide easing of operating restrictions, some local establishments took a more cautious approach and will not immediately reopen.

Jay Rohfritch, owner of Good Books in the Woods, a used book store on Oak Ridge Drive, also said he plans to hold off on reopening his bookstore to customers due to uncertainty surrounding the economic rollout and the virus. In the meantime, the shop is offering free book delivery throughout The Woodlands area. However, Phil Markle, manager of Thomas Markle Jewelers, said The Woodlands location opened with limited capacity on May 1.

“I think a lot of people are optimistic,” he said. “The first 90 days may be a little difficult. I think people may be a little wary. But after that, I see people wanting to celebrate getting over this hump.”

Government guidance

Local governments in south Montgomery County also began discussing their civic reopening plans in April. In an April board meeting, The Woodlands Township directors discussed a phased plan to reopen the community’s public spaces inspired by Abbott’s and President Donald Trump’s similar economic road maps.

The township’s first step would include the reopening of public restrooms, tennis courts, paths and smaller parks.

“It takes both staff managing the social distancing but also residents taking it upon themselves to [socially] distance themselves in the parks,” said Chris Nunes, the township parks and recreation director.

In Oak Ridge North, officials were less certain about reopening criteria for the city pool and parks. At an April 27 meeting, Mayor Paul Bond and several council members questioned the worth of opening the pool this summer as well as the public safety enforcement reopened parks could require.

“In my view, I’m not sure that it’s going to be worth it for us to open the pool up this summer,” Bond said. “The park is another issue in itself because I don’t want our guys to have to police people for social distancing.”

Shenandoah’s public pool remained closed, while the city extended its local disaster declaration into May at an April 22 meeting. That declaration also included guidance that would bring the city in line with any further direction from Abbott and grant the city flexibility through the statewide reopening, Mayor Ritch Wheeler said.

“The governor has come out and said, ‘If you are more restrictive, then my orders are going to supersede yours,’” Wheeler said. “I don’t want to be more restrictive than the governor.”

Vanessa Holt and Danica Smithwick contributed to this report.

Ben Thompson - Andrew Christman