'We're Just Risking Ourselves': Some Austin Businesses Stay Closed As Texas Is Allowed To Reopen

May 1, 2020

Barton Creek Mall opened for the first time in weeks Friday, as phase one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the Texas economy went into effect.

In addition to malls, restaurants, movie theaters and stores that previously had been considered nonessential were allowed to reopen at 25% of the building’s capacity. Abbott said this is the cap that H-E-B has successfully employed over the last six weeks. 

Melissa (who did not want to give her last name) was wearing a mask and waiting in line to browse for shoes at Finish Line. Security was requiring all shoppers who entered the mall to have a mask and turned away customers without one.

“I don’t really take this coronavirus that serious,” she said. “I guess if you’re safe and take the precautions then you won’t really be getting sick.”

She said she has been washing her hands and keeping her distance, but that recently she’s started leaving the house more.

While some shop owners and employees were eager to start making money again, not everyone is ready to jump back in during the middle of the pandemic.

Jam Sanitchat says she has successfully kept her South Austin restaurant, Thai Fresh, going over the last several weeks. It has expanded its groceries and revamped the takeout food system to limit any contact with customers.

She’s managed to keep most of her employees at 80% of the hours they worked before the pandemic. Sanitchat said she is not planning to open her dining room again while there’s a possibility of a rise in the infection rate.

“To risk opening, not knowing if the state is going to decide to close again, because they said that they could if things go south,” she said. “It’s not that easy to switch like that. That’s not how it works.”

Sanitchat said she and her employees have been mostly isolated at work and home since the dining room closed last month. Her employees' safety is her first concern, she said, and bringing new people into the restaurant is not worth the risk.

“There’s no vaccine,” she said. “There’s no cure. We’re just risking ourselves. And we already have healthy people working — and we’re making good money to stay afloat.” 

Thai Fresh might lose some customers to dine-in alternatives, but Sanichat said she feels like she has a good read on her customers.

“There’s a lot of our customer base, and a lot of Austinites, that don’t want to go out yet,” she said. “I’m just going to follow, first, the infection rate and, second, what people are saying, what they’re feeling, what my employees are saying.”

Maggie Wagner, 28, who was taking a walk in her North Loop neighborhood Friday, said she and her fiancé would not be dining in at restaurants this weekend.

"I don't think we're anywhere close enough to it being safe,” she said. “I don't feel comfortable, personally, because I still have fear that I could catch the virus. I don't want to contribute to potentially making another person sick, because who knows if I've picked it up."

Wagner, who works for Interfaith Action of Central Texas, said once hospitalizations for COVID-19 begin declining in Austin she will feel safer eating out. Since Monday night, there has been a 25% increase in people hospitalized in the Austin area with the virus.

Aside from health risks, another factor restaurants are weighing is the 25% occupancy cap. Financially, it may not make sense for them.

“Bringing back everybody, having a full staff, giving out chips and salsa, a bunch more dishwashers, etc. – at 25% we would not be able to cover our payroll and our food costs,” Lenny Arellano, CFO for Casa Garcia’s, one of a host of local chains choosing to stick with just curbside and delivery for now.

Arellano said changing to all-takeout once was financially hard enough. Having to do so again if there’s a spike in COVID-19 cases is not something Casa Garcia's wanted. The restaurant will revisit the decision when the governor announces phase two in a few weeks.

There are some restaurants opening. Maudie’s Tex-Mex, Doc’s Backyard, Pluckers, Hoover’s and Lucy’s are among those that have opened part of their dining rooms or patios for diners.

This story has been updated. 

Claire McInerny and Audrey McGlinchy contributed to this report.

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