Grieder: Houston store and restaurant owners cautiously optimistic as Texas partly reopens

Some Texans think it’s too soon for the state to safely re-open for business — and others think we’ve languished under stay-at-home orders long enough.

The debate over Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to loosen restrictions on commerce across the state despite a very real coronavirus threat will continue, even though his executive order took effect Friday.

Whatever the wisdom of Abbott’s move, the Houstonians who were allowed to reopen their stores and restaurants for the first time in seven weeks were cautiously optimistic Friday — their spirits brightened by the fine spring weather, perhaps, as well as the sliver of normalcy that goes along with being back at work.

“We’re really trying to be very safe,” said Michele Granit, the owner of Village Frame Gallery in West University, adding that her own parents are in their 80s, and therefore among the Texas at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

She had hand sanitizer bottles set up around the store, she said early Friday, and a stash of disposable face masks for anyone who might try to enter the store without one. She said customers who had come in that morning had brought their own facial coverings.

“Everybody seems to be happy,” said Granit, whose small dog Pearl, a mainstay at the shop, welcomed visitors. “It’s a beautiful day — and everyone seems to be happy to see someone who’s not a family member.”

In nearby Rice Village, Three Dog Bakery remained open during the shutdown. But its owner, Sarah Saber, said that business had been sharply down nonetheless, thanks to the collapse in foot traffic.

She had tried to make dinner reservations at one of the restaurants in the neighborhood to celebrate, and was delighted to find that all of the places she checked were booked.

“Their business is our business!” Saber said.

“I’m excited about Texas opening today,” she continued, “and I’m hoping that we can show the rest of the country it can be done.”

We’re all hoping that. And, as it stands, hoping is what it is. Public health experts have qualms about Abbott’s decision to re-open Texas just yet, even in phases. The state continues to lag in terms of testing per capita, and the rate of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths hasn’t been clearly declining for the past two weeks (as federal officials would like to see before reopening businesses).

In fact, on Thursday, the day before the governor’s new order took effect, Texas saw 50 deaths from COVID-19. That was the highest single-day total since the beginning of the pandemic, and brought the statewide death toll to nearly 800.

Local leaders in Harris County, as well as the state’s other major urban centers, are therefore urging us to keep our guard up as we begin venture out — to limit our extracurricular activities, for example, and to wear facial coverings even though Abbott’s order nullifies local orders issued just days earlier that had required them.

Talk about sending mixed messages.

The small business owners who opened their doors are confident that customers who take such precautions will be safe as they shop.

“It’s been terrible,” said Kim Etheridge, the owner of Emerson Sloan, a party supplies store in Rice Village.

“I know that they had to shut everything down because they didn’t know how to deal with this,” she continued, “but a store like mine never had mobs of people in it to begin with.”

Restaurant owners face a harder choice, given both the nature of their businesses and the capacity restrictions — a maximum of 25 percent for now — which will remain in effect for Phase One of Abbott’s “Open Texas” plan. Most have been relying on carryout service only in recent weeks.

Tony Luhrman, the owner of El Topo in Rice Village, stayed open during the shutdown for takeout, and looked for ways to innovate: in addition to coming up with a new kids meal, he’s about to launch a wine club, pairing natural wines with handmade pantry items such as satsuma kosho and cactus salt.

“We were able to keep all of our staff employed, which has been the most important part to me personally,” said Luhrman.

El Topo is still gearing up to resume dinner service, though. It takes a lot of time and staff to switch gears for dinner service, Luhrman explained, and to do so would increase the risk of viral exposure from patrons, which he’s reluctant to do given the state’s lag in testing residents for COVID-19.

JC Woods, the owner of Anvil Cards in West University, said that he was missing his kids, who he had left at home that morning for the first time since Harris County’s shutdown began in mid-March. But he was glad to be back at work. The past few weeks, he said, were “not great” for his business.

“One, you’re scared to go out, but two, you’re scared about your paycheck — and we’re not food, we’re not electric,” he said.

“It was nothing like Harvey,” Woods continued. “Harvey was busy, people were out, we were helping each other, we were going downtown and delivering stuff. It was different. This is more hunker-down- and-isolate.”

It still is, of course. And there will be consequences for all of us, as a result, even if the coronavirus can be contained from this point out. State Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Friday that sales tax receipts were down 9 percent last month compared to April 2019—another sign that lawmakers who convene in 2021 will face some tough decisions about the state budget.

If you’re among the Houstonians who’s been able to weather the pandemic well thus far, you can help support locally owned small businesses get through this difficult stretch — and you should while adhering to safety precautions. As Saber observed, their business is our business.

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