Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Monday afternoon that restaurants across the state would be allowed to reopen Friday with 25% seating capacity. While the order — which is part of what Abbott calls "Phase One" of his plan to reopen the economy after the coronavirus pandemic led to closures statewide — allows businesses to reopen, it does not require them to do so.


The governor’s office released a checklist of Minimum Standard Health Protocols for restaurants that includes limits on seating at a table (maximum six people), implementation of single-use disposable menus, sanitizing directions for employees and work spaces, instruction on screening employees and how to handle employees exhibiting illness symptoms and more.


The Texas Restaurant Association, whose CEO and president Emily Williams Knight was named a special adviser to Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s Business Task Force to Re-Start the Economy, released a statement Monday saying it "applauds" 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."


However, several independent restaurant owners in Austin told the American-Statesman that they were not planning to reopen their dining rooms just yet.


"We would love to open, definitely, right now if it would be possible, but it has to be feasible. If it’s 25% (capacity), it’s impossible," said Iliana De la Vega, chef and owner of El Naranjo in South Austin.


De la Vega says that at only 25% capacity, it is "way more expensive to be open that way than to stay closed. You won’t be able to pay the rent or the staff or for the products. I don’t see how with that amount of people you can make it."


The chef, who last year moved her Oaxacan-inspired restaurant from Rainey Street to South Lamar Boulevard, said she and her staff had previously considered converting temporarily to takeout service but considered the move "pointless."


De la Vegas added that if the capacity was increased to 50%, she would consider reopening with a streamlined menu, pending the consent of her staff.


That increase might be on the horizon. Phase One of Abbott’s proclamation expires at midnight on May 15, at which point Phase Two would be enacted. Barring any flare ups, Phase Two, which would be begin on May 18, would allow businesses to increase capacity to 50 percent.


Some restaurants that have already had relative success with takeout-only service said they will continue going that route, though they don’t intend to open their dining rooms.


"We are going to keep doing the contactless carryout until there is some more stability in (COVID-19) cases," said Via 313 co-founder Brandon Hunt, whose business operates three brick-and-mortar restaurants currently serving curbside takeout. Cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continue to rise in Travis County.


"I understand the need to get things functioning again, and we are very fortunate to have some success with this model, so we will be playing it as safe as possible for the time being," Hunt said.


Chefs Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley, owners of Foreign & Domestic, echoed De la Vega’s concerns about the financial benefits of such limited seating. They have been serving takeout and selling groceries from their North Loop restaurant and said they plan to continue in that vein.


"Opening at 25% is not viable for our 40-seat restaurant, as we would be adding back the costs we have cut and not serving nearly as many people as we are with to-go service," Heard said. "We will continue take-out service and grocery (service) as we are right now and add some self-serve seating outside of the building." Guests will still have to order and pay online, she added, and pick up their food at an outdoor table to ensure no contact.


"We want to ensure that we can continue to keep our restaurant staff quarantined and safe at this time," Heard said.


As for whether Foreign & Domestic would find it viable to reopen with 50% seating capacity, Heard said "possibly."


With the news that dining rooms are reopening, and in an effort to ensure the safety of customers and staff during the coronavirus pandemic, the TRA, which participated in Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s Task Force to Re-Start the Economy, has drafted a set of guidelines it has dubbed the Texas Restaurant Promise.


The unofficial contract asks that restaurants engage in safe sanitation practices; have employees submit to a healthy check or survey prior to each shift; enforce social distancing guidelines; provide hand sanitizing or washing stations for all customers and employees; and make menus, place settings, utensils, and condiments either single use or commit to cleaning them after each use. Participating restaurants are asked to then post the Texas Restaurant Promise at their entrances in an effort to reassure guests of their commitment to the safety measures.


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