Most businesses and restaurants across the state can expand their capacity now that the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has decreased.
Gov. Greg Abbott made the announcement Thursday while giving an update on his plans to reopen Texas.
Beginning Monday, all businesses that were previously open at 50% capacity can open at 75% capacity, except in areas where coronavirus hospitalizations remain high.
“The fact is that not all parts of Texas are impacted the same by COVID. A high level of spread in one part of the state may be completely irrelevant to the COVID condition in another part of the state 500 miles away,” he said. “The severity of COVID in one region of Texas should not dictate the business practices in some far distant region of the state.”
Moving forward, the governor will make most of his reopening decisions based on most heavily on the percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations in each of the state’s 22 hospital regions.
If the number of people with COVID-19 in a hospital region is below 15% for seven consecutive days, Abbott believes the region is safe enough for additional openings. But if the number is higher than 15%, it signals a serious spread of the virus in the region and suggests corrective measures are needed.
Currently, the Dallas-Fort Worth region sits at 6.3%. The Lower Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria regions remain in the danger zone and cannot move forward with reopening at this time.
“When COVID hospitalizations are high, it means the spread of COVID is excessive in a particular region and that corrective action is needed. When hospitalizations are low, it means that COVID is better contained in that region and that businesses can reopen,” Abbott said.
Health experts attribute significant improvements in the state to the fact that more Texans are now taking the virus seriously, wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
Those practices are even more important now that students are returning to schools, fans are returning to sporting events and flu season has arrived, Abbott said.
“Texans have shown that we can address both the health and safety concerns of COVID while also taking carefully measured steps to restore the livelihoods that Texans desperately need,” he said.
Effective immediately, the governor is also allowing hospitals to return to ordinary elective surgical procedures. He will allow nursing homes and assisted living centers to reopen to visitors as long as they meet certain health protocols.
But, Abbott’s mask mandate will stay in place until a vaccine or additional medical treatments are available. He also isn’t yet ready to reopen bars, which he said are nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations.
Despite the small steps of progress, those in the restaurant industry say the increase in capacity is huge.
Yardbird in Dallas is finally opening its doors after COVID-19 delayed the grand opening six months.
“You’re not making money at 50% capacity, you’re not paying rent. You’re not paying. It’s a very difficult place to be especially of a restaurant this size and scale,” said Yardbird Restaurant Founder John Kunkel.” To go to 75, it starts to put us closer back to the norm. It lets us get cash flow positive, hopefully. We got some great news as an opening present from the governor to really get going here and getting back to normal hopefully.”
It’s also welcome news for Robert Talamantez with Terry Black’s Barbeque, which hopes to open up to 75% Monday if management can figure out the logistics with six-foot distancing.
“We’ll take a look at our dining room space and figure out whether we can fit in extra tables,” Talamantez said. “It’s great we’re at 75%. We’re definitely headed in the right direction but again a lot of restaurants. That six-foot rule is going to play a large part in whether they’re going to be able to fit any more.”
When restaurant dining rooms shut down, Terry Black’s had to lay off most of its staff. That is slowing changing, and the restaurant hopes to bring back more workers as capacity increases.
“It absolutely has a direct impact on ourselves and more importantly, too, making sure we’re able to take care of our employees as well,” Talamantez said. “It has a direct impact on them, the amount of hours and the amount of money they make.”
Emily Knight heads the Texas Restaurant Association. She’s happy about the changes..
“We’re trying to balance getting capacity while we increase consumer’s trust that dining rooms are a safe place to be, and so those two coming together right now is a win,” she said.
They were seeking to have the six-foot distancing go away, but revised guidelines will allow restaurants to place tables closer together if there’s a partition.
The state will also allow restaurants to re-use things like condiment bottles and menus, so long as they disinfected between use, thus saving money.
“We would love to have everyone back in a restaurant, at the same time, our numbers look really good and we want to stay on a track to getting back to that 100% and operating in a really efficient way,” Knight added.
One big thing the Texas Restaurant Association is pushing for right now is for cities like Dallas to work with restaurants and allow them to expand outside their walls.
Perhaps even close quiet city streets or other adjacent public areas to increase seating, therefore revenue.
Especially as we head into a more enjoyable time of the year to get outside.
Despite the welcome news for restaurants, bars will still remain closed. The governor says those establishments are nationally recognized as COVID-19 spreading locations. He says they're continuing to work with those business owners on safety strategies once they can reopen.
The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said in a statement: “For months, we've been told that Anti-Business Abbott needs to see sustained positivity rates below 10% and improvements on hospitalizations for bars to be given a chance at reopening. Texas delivered. But he has not acted on this promise and it is a death sentence for thousands of small businesses.”
The alliance also complained that while some bars are reopening as restaurants due the state easing rules, not all can swing it.
Gov. Abbott shuttered bars statewide and reduced restaurant capacity to 50 percent in late June in response to a worsening spike in COVID-19 cases. Abbott also closed river-rafting and tube float shops statewide due to outbreaks related to large groups floating crowded Central Texas rivers.
Abbott said at the time it was evident that the spike was “largely driven by certain types of activities” and the state had to respond.
He told an El Paso TV station in June that his decision to reopen bars before Memorial Day was a mistake.
"If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting," Abbott said in June.
On Thursday, he said he wants bar owners to know that he is focused on finding ways to get them back open safely.
“There are some Texans who want to fully open Texas 100% as if COVID no longer is a threat. The fact is, COVID does still exist and most Texans remain susceptible. If we fully reopen Texas without limits, without safe practices it could lead to an unsustainable increase in COVID that would require the possibility of being forced to ratchet back down,” he said.
As of Sept. 16, 14,478 people have died from COVID-19 in Texas.