By Mitchell Ferman, Texas Tribune
Celebrating her birthday in Galveston, Melinda Prince walked out of Yaga’s Cafe on Thursday full of coconut shrimp. What she didn’t realize was one of the employees at the restaurant may have been working while infected with the coronavirus.
Prince found out three days later through a post from the restaurant’s Facebook account.
“I freaked out,” said Prince, who plans to quarantine for two weeks and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms arise.
Facebook posts from Yaga’s Cafe, whose managers did not respond to requests for comment, indicate other employees have since been tested for the coronavirus, the restaurant voluntarily closed, a professional cleaning crew was hired and recent customers were also encouraged to get tested.
The Galveston eatery is not alone. Restaurants and bars across Texas — including in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Marcos — have closed recently due to concerns about potentially spreading the coronavirus, according to social media posts and local news reports.
Those voluntarily closures come weeks into Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased approach to letting businesses reopen in hopes of igniting the state’s economy, which took a catastrophic hit from local and statewide business shutdowns in March and April. It also comes as local officials ask the governor to allow them to require that people wear face masks in public and as Austin Mayor Steve Adler is encouraging reopened businesses to voluntarily operate their indoor spaces at 25% or less of their full capacity.
And the closures come as the virus continues to spread in Texas. Tuesday was the fifth straight day of record-high hospitalizations of Texans with coronavirus, a worrying confirmation for health experts who predicted cases would rise after the state started reopening. Also Tuesday, the state reported that at least 2,000 Texans have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Many restaurant owners have been trying to balance feedback from their staffs, their patrons, state guidelines and local officials, said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.
“There’s just so many things that these owners and operators are trying to navigate,” Stewart said. “Restauranting is never easy, this is an exponential degree of that.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services and health departments for Dallas, Harris and Tarrant counties did not respond to requests for comment about there is a trend in infections being contracted at bars and restaurants.
At a press conference Tuesday, Abbott said the state has an “abundant” hospital capacity to deal with people who get sick from the virus. He did not issue new requirements that Texans wear face masks in public or allow local officials to do so in their counties and cities, but Abbott urged people to consider if they must venture out and to take precautions if they do.
“They still have to be practiced because COVID-19 hasn’t suddenly magically left the state of Texas,” he said.
In addition to prisons and meatpacking plants, Abbott blamed people in their under 30 for recent surges in coronavirus cases, yet he also acknowledged it has been difficult to tell where those infected contracted the disease.
“It could be Memorial Day celebrations, it could be a bar setting, it could be some other type of gathering,” Abbott said.
The governor partially attributed recent infections in Texas to people younger than 30 testing positive in Hays County. On Tuesday, the county reported that 568 of its 1,093 cases have come from people in that age group.
KXAN earlier this week asked Hays County health officials if restaurants there are becoming common sources of the virus’ spread, but leaders there declined to disclose that information.
“We understand the basis for questions regarding trends that point toward potential clusters or hot spots,” the county health department told the TV station. “However, we do not believe providing this type of information will assist with policy decisions or messaging. In fact, it could be harmful to businesses that are already struggling and trying to get back on their feet.”
But state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said not disclosing such information can actually cause more economic harm.
“We’ve created this situation where we told people it was safe to go back to restaurants and bars and now they’re figuring out they’re not safe,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “That ricochet affect could be the most damaging thing to businesses.”
For weeks, economists have said that reopening businesses will not lead to a quick economic recovery — especially as the pandemic rages on and people worry about venturing out.
Regardless of Abbott allowing restaurants top open, some are closing on their own. Louie’s Beer Garden in San Marcos closed on June 7 after “a couple of employees” tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the bar’s Facebook page.
In Addison near Dallas, an employee at Zoli’s NY Pizza tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend.
“We are hopeful that our strong cleaning, required masks and no-contact procedures that were implemented at the beginning of the pandemic have contained the spread,” the restaurant posted on Facebook, “but we will be closing this restaurant effective immediately, while we assess the situation.”
The sports bar Chicken N Pickle in San Antonio isn’t taking any chances, either, after an employee tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.
“In an abundance of caution,” the bar posted on Facebook, “we immediately closed our property, as we wanted to fully assess the situation and ensure the safety of all who enjoy the food and fun of Chicken N Pickle.”
Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, warned that dining out has become increasingly dangerous.
“The risk is higher now than it was when restrictions were first implemented,” Fischer said in an interview, adding: “It’s not safer out there.”
It’s a reckoning for restaurants in Texas, one of the state’s largest and most visible industries impacted by the coronavirus. More than 680,000 workers in the restaurant industry have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.
“It not only employs a ton of people and brings in an incredible amount of revenue, it’s also part of our national brand,” Stewart said in an interview.
In places on the Gulf Coast like Galveston, some worry that tourists could also be spreading the virus as they travel.
“I think that’s everybody’s main concern here — the tourists,” said Kate Sullivant, a resident on the island whose son works at a popular restaurant on The Strand in Galveston. “That was my only real concern with him working in the service industry.”
So when Sullivant found out one of her son’s co-workers was infected with COVID-19, she feared it might just be the beginning.
“Oh, here we go,” Sullivant said. “It’s happening. It’s happening.”