This all would be easier to, um, stomach if Texas wasn’t so bad at testing and contact tracing.
On Monday, when Gov. Greg Abbott announced that some formerly nonessential businesses could reopen in phases, the Lone Star State ranked near the bottom in the number of COVID-19 tests performed per capita. And some policymakers believe Texas needs to increase the number of healthcare workers performing contact tracing — about 800 of them now, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services — by as much as possibly 50%. Whether or not the data add up, or don’t, probably depends on your income level and political allegiances.
Now I’m as desperate as anyone else for the economy to fire up again. The mom-and-pop Weekly depends on other small businesses for us to be able to offer readers our unique? biased? “fake”? random? takes on local news and the arts. I just would feel better if I knew the person next to me at the burger joint who just coughed wasn’t trying to kill me.
Superseding local orders, Texas retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, these things called “malls,” museums, and libraries will be the first to open Friday. Policing themselves, they will operate at 25% capacity. Abbott did not say anything about bars except to note that they — along with barbershops, gyms, and hair salons — could be open “on or no later than mid-May.” This will be news to the guy from The Basement Bar, who started a viral inferno last week when he announced that he would open his otherwise lovable Stockyards dive on May 1 despite restrictions (“Basement Bar Doubles Down on Opening May 1 Amid Pandemic,” April 22).
The distinct lack of testing isn’t the only problem. There also hasn’t been enough contact tracing, in which health providers track down people who have come in contact with a confirmed case and determine if they need to self-quarantine or head to the ER. Since COVID-19 has an incubation period of 14 days, many people who may have the virus but don’t manifest any symptoms can walk around feeling fine during that time span. And maybe they’re just the kind of people to start their hacking fit as soon as they sit down next to you at a newly reopened burger joint.
Abbott’s orders also provide a public checklist for health protocols when visiting an eatery. Chief among them is Stay the hell away from other customers.
At his news conference Monday, Abbott said the previous shelter-in-place order “has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19” — erroneously. While the data indicate that the spread of the virus has slowed in Texas and here in Tarrant County, there’s no telling if we have reached our peak. It all comes back to that lack of testing.
The Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) fully supports Abbott’s phased plan. In a recent press release, the TRA said it “applauds Gov. Abbott for outlining a clear, science-based approach for Texas to accomplish what must be our two priorities — protecting public health and preventing economic collapse.”
In addition to saying that nearly 700,000 jobs and $4.2 billion in revenue have been lost since the lockdown began, the TRA claims that restaurant owners, operators, and employees “can no longer afford to choose between their health or their paycheck,” which sounds an awful lot like, “Die for shareholders and the economy, worker bees!” but I could be misreading it.
Getting back out there will be fine as long as it’s done carefully. Though there’s no way to know for sure, but I would bet that every reputable Fort Worth establishment will do what it needs to do to protect not only customers but employees. The risk of not doing enough is simply too great. No restaurant wants to be known as “that restaurant,” you know, the one where that person caught COVID-19. Plus, Fort Worth restaurateurs are not monsters. They sincerely care about their community. It’s where they live, too.
Jon Bonnell plans to move forward with care. The owner of four award-winning local establishments, including Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine and Waters Restaurant, told me, “We will have to wait and see how each phase of opening goes very carefully at this point. The last thing anyone wants to see is a large spike in cases. We will be very cautious and proceed slowly with our openings, creating as safe an environment as we can for our customers and employees.”
B&B Butchers & Restaurant is eager to open its doors back up.
“If the curve hasn’t flattened nationally, it doesn’t mean the individual states should not start opening up,” said Benjamin Berg, CEO and founder of Berg Hospitality Group, B&B’s owners. “If … it is safe for our guests and employees, we will absolutely open. However, we will be sure to follow all of the recommended procedures to ensure the continued safety of our staff and guests.”
Berg said that his company raised more than $100,000 for more than 400 of its laid-off hourly employees in Fort Worth and Houston.
“Once we reopen,” he continued, “if someone doesn’t feel comfortable coming back to work, they won’t be forced to work.”
What they may be forced to do is look for a new job. The Texas Workforce Commission has just said that if an employee chooses not to return to work, he becomes ineligible for unemployment benefits, which is huge because some employees have been making more unemployed than they did while on the clock.
Kent & Co. Wines said it is going to take a stand.
“First of all, we have kept all  of our employees on,” a spokesperson said. “We are going to take everything with caution. We have already talked about what happens when the doors open, what our seating would look like and how we would be utilizing our outside area. … We are just here to support our community. We want to make sure that when we open that we will be 150% safe, not just for our employees but for our community.”
One of my favorite spots out where I live in North Fort Worth, Noodles @ Boba Tea House, will continue offering curbside pickup and delivery but will not let customers gather inside.
“We apologize if this inconveniences any of our guests, but we feel this is the safest option for us in the long run!” the humble Vietnamese eatery recently posted. “We hope you will consider dining with us soon!!!”
There is the notion that the Donald J. Trump administration wants people to go back to work, not to be able to put food on their family, as Dubya notoriously said, but to save the federal government from having to bail out states crippled financially by the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader and Trump lapdog Mitch McConnell has said that they can simply go bankrupt. That’s because it’s been mostly blue states that have been inordinately affected by COVID-19. Can’t win a presidential reelection campaign by trotting out a decent candidate? Just let the other side die of a horrible illness.
This is not a good reason for states to reopen nonessential businesses now. What may be worse than self-distancing for a few more weeks will be self-distancing in July and August because we reopened too soon and, as a result, new cases of COVID-19 surged. Just something to chew on as you carefully — carefully — wade back out there. I’m excited to get going, too.
Nadya Zamora contributed two interviews to this story.
This post has been updated to reflect new information.