On Monday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that businesses, including restaurants, will be able to reopen at 25 percent capacity on Friday, May 1. That’s just two days away. Even with the state’s minimum health protocols, several unknowns remain. Like, who must enforce them? What are the latest guidelines for how this affects unemployment benefits? And how do you account for 25 percent capacity in every nook and cranny of a restaurant?
Let’s tackle them.
How Will Restaurants’ Handle Operating at 25 Percent Capacity?
With indoor and outdoor dining seating, reconfiguring a restaurant can become a puzzle.
Elias Pope, owner of the 80/20 Hospitality company behind HGSply, Hero in Victory Park, and Standard Service in Heath, west of Dallas, says they’re “blessed with a ton of outdoor space.” HGSply sits on 8,000 square feet by the river in Fort Worth, and each of the company’s restaurants—save the tighter-packed HGSply on Greenville Avenue—represents more than 5,000 square feet. The Greenville Avenue location has a rooftop deck and patio to counter the relatively narrow interior.
“We are using the 25 percent [to mean] all people in the building. So that includes our staff,” says Pope. In the case of the Hero and Heath footprints, 25 percent occupancy still represents more than 300 people in a space. Pope’s restaurants will not be reopening dining areas on May 1, but will prepare to open around May 9.
Cristy Rather, director of operations at Trinity Groves, says their restaurants will be taking full advantage of their ample outdoor space. “All restaurants on the south side have enormous patios,” she says. “Six feet spacing will get us at that 25 percent occupancy.”
Raul Reyes’ patio-graced, casual, counter-order seafood spot in Bishop Arts, Ceviche, which has been doing only takeaway and delivery, will open on Friday, according to general manager Liz Beltran. With 2,000 square feet and seats for about 100, including patio and bar, “We’re gonna seat everyone scattered around,” says Beltran. “My plan is to still do delivery and comply with the 25 percent capacity.” She’ll remove tables and bar stools inside and block off tables outside to reduce occupancy.
Eric Wilkerson, co-owner of the Austin-based casual, counter-order taco chain Tacodeli, has two locations in Dallas and two in Plano. He says he’s cognizant that the public may be wary of confined spaces. “Our dining rooms will be closed, but we’ll have seating on the patios. We don’t have the biggest dining rooms, so a 25 percent limitation, you eliminate so many tables,” he says, that it doesn’t accomplish anything. If diners want to sit on the patios, staff will be there “constantly sanitizing and also to help guide traffic to try to minimize confusion for the guests.”
Does 25 percent apply to patios? Wilkerson acknowledges that “there’s some unknowns,” but rather than counting occupancy numbers, “we were just approaching it as a minimum of six feet between tables.” Patio tables will remain in place, but be marked or taped off.
Like we reported on Monday, however, many restaurateurs say 25 percent capacity—heck, at 50 percent—isn’t worth the risk of reopening.
Jay Jerrier owns and operates nine restaurants throughout Texas—the pizzerias Cane Rosso and Zoli’s—but says he won’t be open on Friday (just takeout and delivery per usual).
“We’re hearing this on a Monday afternoon and we’re talking about it on a Tuesday. And now we’re going to say we’re going to open on Friday. I just, I just didn’t feel like our staff and our facilities would be ready in a way that would make customers feel good about coming coming in and eating,” says Jerrier, who adds that he’d love to reopen.
Despite some restaurant owners saying that the 25 percent capacity wouldn’t be enough, Jerrier would like the extra revenue. “I can’t undersell how devastating this has been,” he adds. But the businessman, with almost 500 employees working under him, says the prospect of opening up is “overwhelming,” “daunting,” and “just didn’t feel right.”
Jerrier will wait to see how diners feel about dining out. Right now, especially on social media, he’s seen a lot of rage and a lot of hesitancy.
Short answer: Everyone’s looking to maximize safety with the space they have.
Do Bars Inside Restaurants Count Towards That 25 Percent?
For Pope, “occupancy is occupancy.” Not all the concepts’ bars allow for it, but at those that do, Pope plans to space bar seating eight feet apart, but also have pods for “group” bar seating for up to four people. “Where we seat them, there will be nothing at the bar. They won’t be in front of the well. We’ll have to be very intentional” so cleanliness is easy and anything within the seating radius can be cleaned thoroughly between seatings. At Ceviche, the bar will accommodate four seats, which will be spaced to maintain 6-foot distance.
Short answer: If restaurants can safely do so, they’re going to seat guests at bar tops.
Will Workers Become Ineligible for Unemployment Benefits?
As nonessential businesses were forced to close to the public last month, restaurants and bars laid off or furloughed 1.4 million workers across Texas. Those employees, at record numbers, had to apply for unemployment to make ends meet. But now that their former employers are allowed to open—whether they choose to or not—unemployment eligibility is jeopardized. Earlier this week The Texas Tribune reported that “[Employees] who choose not to return become ineligible for unemployment benefits.”
In a statement sent to D Magazine, the TWC says, “Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Recognizing this extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration direction towards reopening the economy.” So, we’ll have to see if a pandemic and concerns about contracting a highly communicable virus counts as a “good cause situation.”
Folks returning to work with reduced hours may still qualify for unemployment insurance, but this will vary on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to other considerations, many contemplating returning to the workforce must negotiate child care. The Texas Workforce Commission, whose website has a tab dedicated to the issue of child care and COVID-19, has acknowledged the dire strain placed on workers facing the double imperative of returning to work (lest they lose unemployment benefits) and finding child care. Especially with the governor’s rule that schools be closed through the summer.
The Commission included a stipulation targeted at aiding the demographic in question: “children of essential workers will receive priority of service and access to an expedited enrollment process for child care financial assistance.”
TWC’s statement also clarifies that, while “public health needs indicate that child care operations may remain open only to serve children whose parent is considered an ‘essential’ worker,” restaurant industry employees (essential workers), unlike others who might be returning to work on Friday, are eligible for child care.
Short answer: For now, it’s case by case.
What Can Restaurants Do About Enforcing Health Protocols?
Of course dining establishments are the first to ensure their staff is adhering to some of the strictest safety and sanitation rules. But what about restaurant guests? Even as we all, restaurants and customers alike, are doing our best to be careful about keeping safe distances or wearing masks, mistakes happen. Accidents happen.
An egregious flouting of the rules can be seriously harmful. And that can certainly happen too. As we figure out best practices, even with the best intentions, without enforcement—either by health officials or restaurants or diners themselves—it’s difficult to acclimate to what’s right.
David Denney, president of Greater Dallas Restaurant Association, says “restaurants are using masks, most if not all are using gloves, [but] the hard thing is to police what the guests are doing.” In Abbott’s Open Texas report, it merely suggests individuals should consider wearing a mask.
“We’re hearing this on a Monday afternoon and we’re talking about it on a Tuesday. And now we’re going to say we’re going to open on Friday. I just, I just didn’t feel like our staff and our facilities would be ready.”Jay Jerrier, owner of Cane Rosso and Zoli's
Trinity Groves doesn’t anticipate policing customers much. “To be honest we consider our diners to be educated, responsible adults,” Rather says. “If we see something, we will very nicely mention it. I don’t anticipate any policing or education, there’s nothing that says they cant have a bite off people forks, and we’re not planning on educating people.”
They don’t want to “dull” the dining experience. Pope likewise says that he doesn’t want people to feel as though they’re dining in a pandemic, though, they absolutely are.
As for health measures Pope can control: the front-of-house staff will wear masks. Temperature and wellness checks are already part of daily practice. “We have a whole task force that’s checking with that every single day,” says Pope. Again, less clear is how to manage that on a guest level. “I don’t know if we’re gonna take temperatures at the door.”
In the kitchen, prep spaces are defined with tape to avoid cross-contamination: the kitchen staff sanitizes, works a set station, then leaves without breaching other stations. The new measures will change even the way they do dishes at Pope’s restaurants.
Pope is hiring an outside company to perform a complete sanitation of all locations next week in advance of reopening. Additionally, they’re using Paycheck Protection Program funds to create entirely new staff positions – staff to manage and clean bathrooms, ensure that doors are wiped. “We’ll have bodies in that 25 percent capacity that will be about solely sanitation.”
By next Friday, a digital platform will allow all diners to use their phones to order at tables, eliminating the need for menus. “We won’t put anything on tabletops,” Pope says. They will sanitize between each table setting, and table settings will be prioritized in the space to ensure ease of sanitizing.
As for monitoring or policing guest behavior on the patio, Beltran says she anticipates “watching” and offering reminders: “If you’re gonna be here, these are the rules we’re gonna have.” Ceviche may be opening up to the public, but “we’re not just set free, we still have to apply these rules” she’ll remind diners. This in anticipation of weekends of patio-weather, when, potentially, “It’s gonna be crazy,” Reyes says. Beltran might institute a waitlist for those who would like to dine on the patio if it’s full. “I don’t want people to hog the time and sit all day long.” Many restaurants have switched to reservation-only to control crowds.
Short answer: Some will do little. Some will try to enforce as politely as possible. But the state says it’s up to us to act “based on common sense and wise judgment that will protect health and support economic revitalization.” Actions like, perhaps, waiting for more testing before sitting in a dining room for an hour or two?
It’s up to you, Texans. Is a margarita on a patio—even the cleanest outdoor patio you ever did see—worth potentially and unknowingly spreading a virus without a vaccine?