Texas Restaurants Face Applause, Fury And Uncertainty As State Opens Them To Full Capacity
The first day without any government-mandated coronavirus capacity limits or mask-wearing requirements in Texas was a mixed bag for retail and restaurant owners, with some feeling euphoria and others consternation — and some dealing with threats — as the burden shifted solely to operators to determine what safety measures to keep in place.
What has become clear is that the governor's decision to fully reopen did not flip a switch in Texas. Bisnow visits to restaurants and mixed-use centers at lunch hour showed mask use still in force, and the majority of restaurateurs and retail property managers Bisnow has interviewed intend to keep mask mandates in place and/or keep occupancy below 100% on their premises.
“The customers are happy, and we are very happy,” Girgin said of his ability to move to 100% capacity.
Girgin noticed customer traffic already ticking upward last weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced all businesses could reopen at 100% capacity. He expects his traffic to reach roughly 70% capacity by this weekend.
The governor's decision has sparked controversy among city and county officials. In Austin’s Travis County, public health leaders criticized the announcement and said they would continue requiring residents to wear masks in public. However, it remains unclear how the county can enforce those local orders since the governor's mandate specifically says no jurisdiction can enforce stricter rules, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has threatened to sue Travis County and the city of Austin if officials don’t back down.
Most business owners Bisnow has interviewed in the past week have also decided to maintain tighter restrictions than is now mandated by the state. Anamia's Tex Mex Director of Operations Jason Shepherd said his Trophy Club Town Center restaurant in DFW is prepared to move back to 100% capacity, but existing coronavirus safety measures will remain intact to protect his patrons and workers.
Houston outdoor shopping center Rice Village is allowing tenants to make their own decisions about masks and capacity, according to REIS Associates Senior General Manager Aj Coffee, who oversees the center. She noted the vast majority of customers have continued to wear masks without prompting.
“As far as the retailers go, they have all made their own decisions corporately of whether or not they would allow anyone in without a mask,” Coffee said. “From what I can tell, the majority of them are asking their guests to still wear a mask, [and] their employees are all wearing masks, as well as in the restaurants.”
Coffee noted that Abbott’s order came into effect midweek, so traffic at Rice Village was relatively low. She believes the weekend may offer a clearer picture of the attitude of the general public.
A DFW-based independent bar and restaurant owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said he’s preparing for customer fallout when he enforces his own safety guidelines.
“We have received hate from both sides,” the operator told Bisnow in a statement. “Most of my independent restaurant friends are gearing up for the fights at the front door from either side.”
“There will be many viral videos, fights, and possible violence because people feel so strongly about their stance on the mask issue. It really sucks that our governor pushed the responsibility onto us to keep our guests and staff safe especially during the rise of the variants. The demos we serve are typically 25-55 and these people have mostly not been vaccinated yet. Our staff is typically 21-35 and none of them have been vaccinated.”
Only 16.3% of the Texas population has received a single dose of the coronavirus vaccine and only 8.8% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The DFW restaurateur said for restaurants that absorb high traffic levels, particularly younger clientele, it’s simply too early and vaccination rates are too low to remove statewide mask mandates. The operator said they wish the governor had waited to pull back on mandatory mask orders.
“We are at risk of hate and safety,” they said. “I think the governor should have at least kept the mask mandate. Within days you will be able to go to almost any decently followed independent restaurant and look up the nasty Google, and Yelp reviews we will all be getting from the far sides.”
Picos, a long-standing Mexican restaurant in Houston’s Upper Kirby district, announced on social media shortly after the governor's announcement on March 2 that it would still require masks and maintain social distancing.
The blowback from angry customers made national headlines. People started calling the restaurant and leaving abusive messages on social media, threatening to report staff to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Picos Chief Marketing Officer Monica Richards, who is the daughter of the owner, Arnaldo Richards, said those calls and messages began as soon as the restaurant posted its official policy, and have continued every day since. As a result of the harassment, Richards ended up hiring a peace officer to stand outside Picos and monitor the people coming in and out.
“Traditionally, we do not have one. But because of the high-profile exposure and everything for staff, we felt it was best to have one here today,” Richards told Bisnow on March 10.
Richards noted that just that day, Picos had already received between 20 and 30 phone calls from people threatening to call immigration. However, only three people have tried to physically enter the restaurant without a mask over the past week, and all were longtime male customers dining with their families.
Richards said she has also received an outpouring of support from other customers in the form of phone calls, in-person visits, social media posts and private letters.
“Honestly, everything else besides the reports [to] ICE has been an overwhelming show of support, and kind words and private letters from customers, calls, retweets, reshares on their [social media] stories. Our customers really went to the mattresses on this one for us,” Richards said.
Picos has about 8K SF of indoor restaurant space as well as an outdoor dining area, and Richards noted that the restaurant is now operating at 75% capacity. Before Abbott’s announcement, the restaurant was operating at 50% capacity.
“We've always been 25% below whatever the allowed occupancy rate is, because we felt that was the best practice for our staff and our guests,” Richards said.
The level of criticism Picos has faced is thus far unusual; most business owners Bisnow interviewed said enforcing their own restrictions has gone more smoothly.
The Moran CityCentre General Manager Jerome Strack said The Moran’s corporate policy across all its hotels is to require both staff and guests to wear masks. He said that the staff at his 244-room boutique hotel has not encountered much difficulty in enforcing that policy, even in light of Abbott’s executive order.
“Over the last two weeks, I think people are getting more comfortable with the number of vaccines that are coming out, or people getting vaccinated. But I think that people are still smart here in the state of Texas. I've seen people come in all day long here, and I didn't have to tell anybody sorry, you have to wear a mask,” Strack said.
The only exception was on March 2, the day that the governor announced the executive order. Strack said that barely five minutes after the press conference ended, he approached a group of maskless guests in the lobby, and asked them to put on face coverings.
“They said, ‘Well, the governor said we don't have to wear it.’ And I said, well, first of all, that doesn't start until next week, Wednesday. And second of all, we make the rules in the hotel,” Strack said.
The situation was resolved peacefully. But now that the executive order has come into effect and the weekend looms, Strack said his staff could encounter more pushback from guests in the coming days.
“We'll deal with it,” Strack said.
Whitebox Real Estate President Grant Pruitt, a broker who works with retailers, said he believes it will take another six to eight months before restaurants know just how comfortable they are with a full shift back to normal.
“I haven’t seen anybody change it,” Pruitt said of restaurant safety protocols. “I think it would be stressing on their customer bases if they said everything is just back to normal. It’s too much of an abrupt shift. I think it’s going to take some time.”