The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Gatlin’s BBQ much like it has other Houston-area restaurants, which were forced to close their dining rooms for more than a month and saw dips in sales as a result.
Eateries all across Texas are allowed to resume limited dine-in services on Friday, which for many is a welcome and long-awaited development. But Gatlin’s, an unassuming yet popular spot at the corner of Ella Boulevard and Judiway Street, has decided to wait a little longer.
Owner Greg Gatlin said Tuesday that he plans to keep his dining room closed and continue operating as a to-go-only restaurant, at least for another two weeks. He said restricting his restaurant to 25 percent occupancy, the requirement outlined in Phase 1 of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the state, would not be cost effective for his business or comfortable for his customers.
Gatlin also said he’s not convinced it is safe to start inviting local barbecue lovers back into his dining room. Earlier Tuesday, the Houston Health Department reported 61 new cases of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, as well as four additional deaths among city residents.
“I think it’s a little early,” Gatlin said. “To me, the risk-reward isn’t there.”
For many other local businesses, being permitted to reopen is a reward in itself. The mother-daughter team of Janet Thuot and Koryn Wright moved their Threadfare Children’s Boutique to a new location on West 34th Street in February, and on March 24 they were forced to close along with other businesses deemed non-essential as part of the stay-at-home, work safe order issued by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Wright said Threadfare continued to make online sales and deliver products to customers, but the business suffered nonetheless. So reopening their store, even to just a few shoppers at a time, figures to provide a boost.
“We are very grateful that Governor Abbott has tried to start doing this a little bit at a time,” Thuot said. “Because if we’re going to wait until we have a vaccine, there won’t be a store.”
As part of the executive order Abbott issued Monday, all malls, movie theaters, restaurants and retail stores along with libraries and museums can reopen their doors to customers on Friday. Those businesses must adhere to social distancing guidelines that require at least 6 feet of separation between people who are not part of the same household along with taking other precautionary measures to keep customers and employees safe from COVID-19.
If the relaxed restrictions do not result in spikes of cases, deaths and hospital admissions, Abbott said his plan is to allow those business to operate with increased occupancy while phasing in other kinds of businesses that can reopen. The governor said that could happen as soon as May 18.
“It’s a good first step,” said Travis Weaver, the owner of Manready Mercantile on West 19th Street in the Heights. “The thing is, it’s a learning curve. … Now we’re in the sanitizing and safety business.”
Abbott has issued specific guidelines for reopening different types of businesses. For retailers such as Threadfare and Manready Mercantile, which sells general goods with a focus on products for men, they must screen employees for illness, train them to clean and disinfect frequently touched services and make hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes or soap and water readily available to customers and workers.
Restaurants must do the same while using disposable menus, serving condiments only upon request and in single-use portions and limiting tables to six customers or fewer.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. This isn’t going to be an easy thing for us to do,” said Federico Cavatore, the owner of Cavatore Italian Restaurant near the intersection of Ella Boulevard and East T.C. Jester Boulevard. “Every restaurant, every business that’s opening Friday is going to have to do things as lot differently.”
But that’s OK, according to Cavatore, who said it’s time to reopen and provide a boost to an economy that’s been crippled by COVID-19. He said he was anxious to see how the restaurant would fair over the weekend – Cavatore had taken 20 reservations for Friday night as of Tuesday afternoon – and curious to see how the general public would respond to having more options to get out after several weeks of staying in.
Gatlin said customers and businesses alike must create a “new normal” and get there gradually, which means being flexible. Even though he’s not yet opening his dining room and will use to-go packaging for all orders, he said customers may be allowed to sit down and eat as long as they’re being safe and not bothering anyone else.
“I think we have to kind of create those normals rather than saying, ‘I want things to go back to the way they were,’” Gatlin said. “They’re not necessarily going to go back to the way that they were per se. But we can create that normal of whatever we want that to be going forward.”