HARLINGEN — Like Jose Silva’s restaurant, many area businesses are planning to reopen Monday at half their customer capacity as part of the second phase of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to lift the state’s economic shutdown.
At the same time, public health officials warn Texas’ number of coronavirus cases appears to have spiked since Abbott launched the program May 1, when businesses began reopening at 25-percent capacity.
“The numbers are going up and I think that’s worrying some but others are ready to go,” Chris Gonzales, chief executive officer of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s a mix. You have people who are frustrated and want to get out. You have others that are scared. We need businesses going but on a safe route.”
Mayor Chris Boswell said Abbott’s plan aims to gradually reopen the state’s businesses.
“Reopening is going to be more gradual and at everyone’s pace,” Boswell said. “This is going to take some time because everyone wants to go at their own pace and follow guidelines. There are still residents hesitant to go to restaurants and businesses that could have more people than they’re comfortable with. It’s going to take a little more time for people to become more comfortable.”
At City Hall, Josh Ramirez, the city’s health director, warned the state’s number of virus cases is climbing.
On April 30, Abbott allowed his shelter-in-place order — which mandated residents without justifiable reasons stay home to limit the virus’ exposure — to expire after about a month.
Since May 1, when Abbott launched the first phase of his plan, allowing businesses to reopen at 25-percent customer capacity, Cameron County’s total number of virus cases stood at 412, according to County Judge Eddie Treviño’s office.
By Friday, that number had jumped to 601, including 27 deaths.
“There’s concern for all of us when we see an increase in community spread and travel,” Ramirez said. “They’re out and about, with people traveling more. They’re more mobile. They’re getting (the virus) somewhere. If they were at home, we would not see those cases showing up.”
Work safety plan
At the chamber, Gonzales was handing out his “work safety plan,” helping businesses plan their reopening.
The plan includes information on a newly mandated training program known as COVID-19 Awareness and Prevention, which outlines virus symptoms, highlights precautionary steps such as sanitation and protocol such as social distancing.
“Most of them are spread out, checking temperatures of workers, trying to make customers comfortable,” Gonzales said of businesses. “We’re going to have a few more open. I think we’re on a good start. I think things are progressing. Businesses want to get up and running. We’re waiting to see how people react. Customer feedback is the biggest thing. Safety is a big issue. People are getting a little more comfortable.”
Prepping for the big day
In Harlingen, Silva said he’s following federal guidelines such as social distancing, aimed to curb the spread of the virus.
At his restaurant’s door, his headwaiter is greeting guests with a short list of protocol.
“Keep your mask on until you sit down to eat, keep social distancing at all times and have a great time,” his headwaiter told guests as they entered the popular Golden Corral.
For two weeks, Silva has waited for Abbott’s plan to allow his restaurant to expand its dining capacity from 25 to 50 percent.
“We’re ready. We’re really anxious,” Silva said from under his facial covering as guests filled his open tables. “We already have it set up, ready to go.”
At Silva’s restaurant, it’s safety first.
“The biggest thing is the health of the community and employees,” he said. “We did detailed cleaning prior to opening. We take employees’ temperatures when they come in. We can only accommodate six per table.”
But the restaurant’s famed buffet features the biggest change.
“We serve the guests,” Silva said. “At the buffet, we’re doing cafeteria-style serving. We have employees behind the buffet serving guests to avoid guests handling serving utensils.”
Even after the month-long shutdown, Silva’s proud to keep his payroll nearly intact.
Now, 68 of 73 employees are back on the job, he said.
Meanwhile, more of his customers are coming back.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “There’s more and more guest confidence. We’re getting positive feedback from guests.”
Still, many customers are ordering.
After he reopened, the restaurant’s carry-out, delivery and online orders have climbed as much as 80 percent, Silva said.
Business picking up
At Craig’s Furniture, Manager David Bazan said he’s ready to reopen at 50-percent capacity, even though his showroom’s big enough to easily allow him to comply with social distancing guidelines requiring he keep his customers six feet apart.
“We use a mask and try to distance ourselves,” Bazan said from under his facial covering.
Since he reopened at 25-percent customer capacity two weeks ago, business keeps picking up, he said.
“It’s been gradually getting better,” he said. “The economy has got to get better. Everybody’s struggling. Money has to flow.”
Now, mattresses are his hottest sellers as residents spend more time at home complying with Treviño’s recommendation to stay home to limit exposure to the virus.
“Mattresses are the number-one seller,” he said. “Now that they’re spending more time at home and they’re watching TV in their rooms, they think their mattress isn’t comfortable.”
At Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant, owner Joe Ayala had been mulling plans to reopen Monday.
But now he’s waiting.
Spiking virus cases played a role in the decision, Manager Mike Herrera said.
“We’ll probably evaluate it Monday and see what action we’re going to take,” Herrera said. “We’re going to see what other businesses are doing, see what the news is saying, see what people are saying. We’re trying to make sure both parties are safe — customers and employees. From what the news is saying, it’s still a scary situation. I hope (virus cases) start to decline and the economy will get the boost it needs.”
San Benito businesses ready
In San Benito, Rebeca Castillo, executive director of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said she expects about 10 to 12 businesses to reopen at 50-percent capacity Monday.
During the month-long shutdown, about 30 percent of the city’s 288 businesses closed, she said.
Since May 1, she said, about 80 percent of those businesses have reopened.
“Most of the businesses are trying to be precautious for the safety of their employees and customers,” Castillo said. “Some of them are waiting another two weeks to see if they’ll open. They’re going to see how the first wave of openings went to determine if it’s feasible to open.”