Chad Head and his mother, Christy Wernert, sat on the second-floor patio of Dos Salsas in North Austin on Friday afternoon, sipping frothy drinks and eating Tex-Mex food just like the good old days. By which we mean about seven weeks ago, before dual orders from the city of Austin and Travis County mandated that restaurants close their dining rooms to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued a proclamation allowing Texas restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity Friday, superseding any local orders to the contrary. For Dos Salsas, which opened its Burnet Road location in December, that means seating for about 100 guests. As a small lunch crowd subsided, Heard and Wernert were two of about 30 patrons dining at the restaurant, happy to get a chance to share a meal together in public for the first time in almost two months. Wernert drove up from New Braunfels for the occasion.
"This doesn’t scare us," Wernert said of eating out in public for the first time.
Head, who lives in North Austin and had visited Dos Salsas a couple of times before, chuckled and admitted a little trepidation.
"Scaredy cat," Wernert teased.
Head, his wife and their two children have ordered takeout a few times over the past six weeks but have mainly cooked at home, with Head’s wife handling most of the culinary duties that extend beyond making hot dogs and sandwiches for the kids.
Venturing out to dine in public gives Head a little pause, though he appreciated that all of the servers and food runners wearing masks at Dos Salsas were following physical distancing and safety guidelines. But the new reality — which comes after just weeks of a different new reality — requires a little adjustment.
"I’m still just trying to process it," said Head, whose contract work specializing in spec housing has remained steady despite the economic downturn.
Head and his family dined out about three or four times a week before the pandemic. He expects they’ll continue to eat out now that some dining rooms have reopened. If and when restrictions ease further and seating capacities are increased, Head says he’ll reassess his comfort level.
A few hometown favorites, such as Cisco’s, Plucker’s and Juan in a Million, joined Dos Salsas this week in announcing plans to reopen Friday.
Masked servers far outnumbered customers at the well-spaced tables early Friday morning at Juan in a Million in East Austin.
"Juan is the best place to be, especially for breakfast," said Aleza Ruiz, there with friend Lexie Belcher. Arriving around 9:30 a.m., they were about the seventh party all morning. "I grew up coming here. So seeing the same waitresses is comforting. It feels like normal."
At Dos Salsas, general manager William Plata, whose father, Guillermo, opened the first Dos Salsas in Georgetown in 1999, looks forward to greeting his regular customers, whom he considers family, as they return. He paused to say goodbye to some of his departing lunch customers in the lobby before saying he believes people are ready to get out to eat and drink together again.
But on the first day back in business, Plata, who had spent the six weeks of the restaurant’s closure working the takeout operation at Dos Salsas’ Cedar Park location, acknowledged that he shares the mixed emotions that many have.
"It was exciting, but, at the same time, I feel a little nervous just because of everything that’s going on," Plata said of his first day back in the reopened North Austin dining room.
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Hundreds of restaurants chose not to reopen their dining rooms Friday.
"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 on Monday. Via 313 operates three area brick-and-mortar pizza restaurants. "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."
Plata, an 11-year employee of his father’s restaurants, said management had considered not reopening. But after consulting with their employees, it was clear that almost all of them were ready to get out of the house and back to work.
"The bills don’t stop," Plata said.
Plata acknowledges that some in the public may disagree with the move. He thinks those people are entitled to their opinion, but he said the restaurant can only control what it can control.
"We feel we’re doing the best that we can to provide a safe atmosphere for everybody to come in here and be well taken care of and know that they’re not going to be put into a dangerous situation," Plata said.
Dos Salsas has positioned hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant, limited tthe staff’s physical interaction with guests, used an outdoor host stand to regulate crowd flow and required its approximately 75 staff members, all of whom had been furloughed after the March 17 dining room closure, to wear masks.
"It’s different, but the customers understand, and the employees are all for it. This might be the new norm for a while," Plata said, recognizing that things could get better and then get worse again. "I think it’s going to be good practice for us, something that we might have to get used to for the next few months."
Additional material by staff writer Jonathan Tilove.
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