Wednesday, October 5, 2022 Oct 5, 2022
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So You Want To Go Out To Eat. Not So Fast.

Don't listen to politicians. Listen to doctors and scientists. "It's not a cleaning issue," one said, "it's a transmission issue."
By |
Bret Redman

Restaurants in Texas that reopened with 75 percent indoor occupancy levels have been rolled back to half capacity. Bars were ordered to close by noon. (Restaurant patios for now can operate as usual with the same safety protocols—social distance and wearing masks.) These are among the most recent measures that Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday, after making previous statements that closing businesses would be something of a last resort to curb the recent surge of COVID-19.

While businesses haven’t been shut down entirely—bars can still do takeout and forms of alcohol to-go, same with restaurants—it’s a clear indication that we’ve reached another inflection point where we need to act fast to reduce the spread.

Much of these cases are “coming from the bars and restaurants, regrettably,” says Dr. Mark Casanova, president of the Dallas County Medical Society. “When you look at our hospitalizations in Dallas County in particular, of those…who gave us information about their occupation, which is a vast majority, about 80 percent…are in critical infrastructure,” which includes medicine, supply chain, construction, and, yes, the hospitality industry.

With coronavirus, there’s always been risk when dining out. The last two weeks have included reports of more and more restaurants with positive COVID cases among their staff. Even with precision safety measures, there is going to be risk. And as customers, you have to realize that the person serving you may not have a choice but to come to work. That should factor into our calculus.

The best part of dining out is also the riskiest: the intimacy, the chats over loud music, sharing bites. It’s not fair that restaurants and bars are affected in this way, but the virus doesn’t care about fairness.

“This virus is potent, it’s smart, it’s ambitious, and we could do all the right things and it can jump up and bite us,” says Casanova. “It’s not a cleaning issue—and that’s important—it’s a transmission issue.”

You can do the deepest of cleans, which is of course important, but all it takes is “one person who walks in, completely asymptomatic, transmits it to one person. Done,” says Casanova.

Sandwich Hag in the Cedars was at the forefront of enforcing social distancing measures and contactless takeout operations. Last week, the banh mi shop reported a positive case. When asked for comment, chef-owner Reyna Duong declined, saying that her mind has been at max capacity.

Last Wednesday, after being open for only four days, Shoals Sound & Service co-owner Omar Yeefoon and his team decided to close their Deep Ellum bar over a week ahead of the governor’s announcement. “I don’t feel like a tea leaf reader or soothsayer,” says Yeefoon, “I just looked at the info I could get and something had to be done.” The bar nearly opened up at 5 p.m. until he saw positive cases break into the 400s. This week’s seven-day rolling average has been 411 cases. Friday’s set a new daily record of 496, which is surely to be broken soon.

“If we really want to slow the spread, then we need to take steps back in the phases. And I really applaud the governor for coming out and making an emergency judgment to close bars and go back to 50 percent,” Yeefon says. He doesn’t claim to be an expert, but is speaking for his own business, where air circulates inside his small and cozy bar.

Before reopening “we did all of the things: we’ve had tests, we’ve had professional cleaning and sanitizing,” says Yeefoon, yet he “still didn’t feel comfortable.” So they’ll continue with their full vegan menu for pickup (call to order) or delivery on DoorDash and Uber Eats. (He’s particularly proud of Shoals’ espresso martini cocktail kit that serves six.)

Yeefoon notes they don’t have outdoor space, but maybe places like Toller Patio on Ross Avenue, which is entirely outside, would be safer.

“The risk is lower outdoors, but it’s not zero,” says Casanova, “and I think folks need to bear that in mind.” Hypothetically we can think about misting fans on patios in this Texas summer heat. “Well, now what we’ve done is added a beautiful amount of virus-loving ambient moisture in the air and blowing it from one table to the next.”

Casanova says we need to pause and think about how we’re unintentionally making matters worse, so we can get numbers down. He recognizes how tough this is on the restaurant industry. “That is one of our struggle in medicine is, you know, our [safety and health] recommendations, we know comes at a cost [to restaurants and bars].”

Kim Finch, owner of Double Wide bar, likewise reopened last week for the first time since March. “We wanted to be safe, we wanted to be thoughtful. We just opened Friday, a week ago. We took our time,” she says. Now that they have to close again, “It’s beyond frustrating. I’m angry. I’m sad.” Finch says she even invested money in building a roll-up garage door to open to their outdoor space.

“I don’t think I’m as mad about shutting down as the way it’s been done. I want to do the right thing,” says Finch, she doesn’t want it to be in vain. “If bars are the only thing that closes, how does that make any sense?” 

Meanwhile restaurant owners left to make their own decisions. There is no perfect handbook. Many are following state and federal heath guidelines. That hasn’t stopped the virus from spreading. For his FlavorHook restaurants, Nick Badovinus had taken it a step further, teaming up with SafeWork (see our story on the testing start-up here) for weekly COVID testing for his staff. “These measures might seem extreme to some,” a social media post read, “but at this point, we are forced to create a world where community, commerce and COVID-19 can co-exist.”

While restaurants are testing employees, we’re still lagging in testing, says Casanova.

“There are in fact, truly asymptomatic individuals who are viral spreaders. One other thing I think we want everybody to understand—[for those] older and younger, healthier and compromised—there was this early impression that, hey, even if you do get fit, provided you survive, you get over it, you’re fine,” he says. “Not so much.”

Medical experts like Casanova are seeing increasing evidence of residual lung-related issues, residual kidney-related issues, lasting brain or central nervous system issues. “I can tell you firsthand I’ve seen younger individuals on full measures of life support who are otherwise healthy,” he said. “So this can be the real deal for pretty much anybody.”

Other restaurants see the limbo they’re in. Chef Mansour Gorji of his eponymous restaurant in Far North Dallas sent an email to his listserv this week about why Restaurant Gorji will remain closed except for takeout. He’d been fielding calls for reopening but, despite no rent break from his landlord, he says, “I cannot in all, in all fairness, do that for money. I can’t do it.” (For his own sanity though, he says, “employees still set flowers on the table every day.” He laughs and tells customers that, no, they can’t sit and eat their takeout here.)

As much as he wants intimate dining to return, “there are no actual guidelines we can all follow. It has become a political dispute between the scientific experts and some governmental officials which leaves us in limbo,” Gorji said in his email. He says he received mostly positive feedback from his statement.

Casanova wants to be clear: the medical community isn’t anti-restaurant (he cites that his love for a Mambo Taxi is as great as anyone’s) and that it’s not restaurants or bars at fault. The virus is to blame. Yeefoon, who’s frequented Deep Ellum spots where owners and staffers have safety protocols down to a tee, yet still had a positive case, literally echoes Casanova’s sentiments.

“Its not their fault that their staff has come down with coronavirus,” he said, “it’s the virus’ fault.”

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