Despite The Green Light, Houston’s Restaurateurs Are Reluctant To Raise Occupancy Or Ditch Masks
After a year of lockdowns, closures, occupancy limits, social distancing and face coverings, Texas restaurants have been given the green light to reopen at full capacity.
The removal of statewide mandates on occupancy and masks will allow businesses to operate as they see fit, offering a path back to pre-pandemic normalcy. But despite the business opportunity presented by the changes, many restaurateurs told Bisnow they are reluctant to rush back to full dining rooms and naked faces.
Instead, some Houston restaurant owners and operators are opting to keep limited occupancy and masks for both staff and customers for the foreseeable future, preferring to take their cue from official health agencies and national disease experts rather than from Texas politicians.
“I'm not about to just rip my mask off and welcome people in with full seating. We're just not going to do that. I think it's too risky, it's too soon. And I'd rather just wait and watch,” Pondicheri chef and co-owner Anita Jaisinghani told Bisnow.
It’s been a difficult year for restaurants across Texas. Of the roughly 50,000 that were in operation before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, about 11,000 have permanently closed, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.
Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state will allow all businesses to reopen at 100% capacity on March 10, up from an existing 75% capacity maximum. Abbott also signed an executive order that will lift the statewide mask mandate, stating that no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear a face covering, though they are “strongly encouraged” to do so. Individual businesses are allowed to set their own restrictions and can call authorities to remove anyone who does not comply.
The TRA welcomed the announcement, saying in a statement that for the 167,000 Texans that remain unemployed in the restaurant sector, “there’s finally a light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.”
But for many of Houston’s restaurateurs, the move to eliminate occupancy limits and masks poses more risk than reward.
Only 7.5% of the total Texas population has been fully vaccinated as of March 4. That figure is even lower for Houston’s Harris County, where only 6.8% of the local population had been fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Though cases of the coronavirus in Texas steadily declined from the beginning of the year through mid-February, they are on the rise again. Texas had 7,593 new cases on March 3, a 6% increase from two weeks earlier, according to The New York Times’ coronavirus tracker. Harris County rates are dropping after hitting a record monthly high in January, with the county recording 1,615 new cases on March 3, down 2% from two weeks prior.
“When [Abbott] first made the announcement that we were going back to 100% and no masks, to be honest, my first reaction was fear: fear for my staff and my family's health and well-being,” said Jessica Levine, general manager of family-owned restaurant Jonathan’s The Rub.
Levine has personal experience with the danger of COVID-19: Both of her paternal grandparents died from the disease in August, only a week apart.
Levine oversees the Jonathan’s The Rub location at Memorial Green, while her brother runs the original location at Hedwig Village. Both have been operating at a maximum of 50%, and Levine said they will continue to do that for the foreseeable future. In addition, masks will be mandatory for both staff and customers.
“We feel like with fitting 50% capacity, social distancing the tables, wearing masks and gloves and sanitizing the way that we have with our cleaning procedures, has really helped us. We have not had to close one time because of an employee outbreak from COVID-19. And so I feel like we're doing something right with that,” Levine said.
Houston restaurateur Marcus Davis said two of his four hospitality businesses, The Breakfast Klub and Reggae Hut Café, are open in Houston right now. Davis said to protect his staff, he has decided to keep occupancy levels unchanged at those businesses, which are operating at between 50% and 75% capacity. Staff and customers will also be required to continue wearing masks.
“I can't control everything, but I can at least provide the effort to minimize a spread within my organization,” Davis said.
Jaisinghani also intends to keep Pondicheri at 50% capacity and said she will enforce mask use for both staff and patrons. For her, the concern is that there are so many strains of the coronavirus emerging, and the vaccine rollout has not been fast or accessible enough for most people.
“If that was the case, yes, I would have a different opinion. But if I'm not going to get vaccinated, then I'm not about to do something like this. It just doesn't make any sense,” Jaisinghani said.
Levine said she doesn’t agree with Abbott’s decision, and that in her opinion, it would have been better to do one thing at a time, like raising occupancy to 100% but keeping mandatory face coverings.
“I think I would have been a little bit more comfortable with that, and maybe have thought about going up to 75% capacity if he had done that,” Levine said. “My family and I have just decided to sit tight, keep doing what we're doing, and just hope for some really good news in the future and keep our ears to the ground.”
Abbott signed an executive order in July ordering mandatory face coverings for all of Texas. Davis said that order made it easier to enforce masks in his establishments because he had the law to back him up.
“It does put us in a precarious situation. Before, we had the ability to say by law, this is what must happen,” Davis said. “[The announcement] did leave us with the right to do what we choose to do, but not authority of the law.”
Tracy Vaught is the co-owner of H-Town Restaurant Group, which operates several well-known restaurants in inner Houston, including Hugo’s in Montrose and Xochi in Downtown Houston. Vaught has also decided to maintain operating capacity at 50% for her businesses, and staff will be required to keep masking up.
Customers will also be asked to wear masks, but Vaught said she will not force her employees to confront diners beyond suggesting or offering masks, as she doesn’t want to place them further in harm’s way.
“If someone were to get belligerent about it, I have told the employees not to push it because some people have lost their lives in that situation. Nothing's worth that,” Vaught said.
Both Jonathan’s The Rub locations are in the Memorial area of Houston, and Levine said many of her customers are politically conservative and have been craving a return to normalcy. That has helped her business rapidly improve over the past six months. Many of her customers have also expressed frustration at the mask mandate.
Levine said that she understands the frustration but that it’s not enough reason to remove safeguards and place people’s health at risk.
“We all know what's going to happen. It's going to start spreading again, cases are going to be on the rise. I'm sure hospital workers are all rolling their eyes and rolling up their sleeves because they're going to be gearing up for another outbreak,” Levine said.
The desire to keep limited capacity and masks has been echoed by many other well-known restaurant operators and establishments across Houston since Abbott’s announcement.
Most of the restaurateurs that spoke to Bisnow viewed the decision to lift the mandates as being politically driven rather than practical and noted that even with no legal enforcement of occupancy limits or masking, many customers will still be uncomfortable with the idea of returning to eat in a restaurant without any safeguards.
For Jaisinghani, the timeline for her embracing Texas’ changes will come down to when public health officials say it’s safe.
“It really is going to depend on what the CDC or what the numbers, or the science tells us. It's not my decision, it's going to come from the top,” Jaisinghani said. “I'm not going to not listen to scientific evidence.”
The majority of servers in Vaught’s restaurants are younger and don’t qualify for phases 1A or 1B of the vaccination rollout. That also influenced her decision to keep both occupancy limits and masks, Vaught noted.
Davis said the biggest frustration is knowing how close Texas is to rolling out vaccinations on a wider scale and getting the spread of the disease under control. He believes the governor’s executive order could undermine that effort and end up hurting businesses further.
“We're just so close to having the vaccination numbers higher. Finding a balance between higher vaccination rates, lower case rates and of course, lower hospitalization and fatality rates. It's painful that we're so close, and now we just don't know what's going to happen,” Davis said.