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Dine in or no? Conflicting messages on COVID-19 leave Dallas restaurateurs weary and uncertain

Restaurant operators are caught between vocal industry leaders and advice from local officials.

In the span of a week, Dallas restaurateurs have received considerably conflicting messages from government and industry leaders regarding the current state of restaurant dining.

The Texas Restaurant Association sent an email to its members last Friday that said, “with Thanksgiving around the corner, it is more important than ever to encourage customers to dine out.” However, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins posted a message on Twitter Tuesday urging Dallas residents to “forgo in-restaurant dining experiences and in-home get-togethers” as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise to alarming levels. On Wednesday, Dallas County reported 947 new coronavirus cases and 17 new COVID-19 deaths.

On a statewide level, Gov. Greg Abbott’s restaurant guidance remains unchanged since two months ago, when he allowed restaurants to increase occupancy from 50% to 75% if they’re in a region with lower COVID-19 hospitalizations.

It’s a recurring 2020 predicament in the restaurant industry — mixed messages, rapidly changing guidance, and the feeling that businesses are on their own as they weather the pandemic. But restaurant operators are wearied by the muddled communications and growing uncertainty about the future of their businesses.

“I don’t know what to do,” says Dallas restaurateur Jon Alexis, who owns TJ’s Fresh Seafood and Malibu Poke. “Am I supposed to be ramping up for a busy holiday season or ramping down to shut down next week? What am I supposed to be doing right now? At least in the spring, there was kind of a sense of what to do. This is the weirdest part yet.”

The paradoxical messages about whether or not people should dine out, and how restaurants should operate, put operators in a difficult position, Alexis says.

“When you get drastically different guidance from government and industry leaders, it forces restaurant operators to rely on our guts,” he says. “My gut tells me the best path forward is to take extreme antiviral measures to make sure my restaurant is the least likely source of viral spread as it can be.”

But not everyone running a restaurant has the same approach, which is why a lack of uniform guidance is a problem, he adds.

Emily Williams Knight, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, points to a recent report that shows community spread is in part coming from house parties as a reason why people should dine in restaurants instead.

Knight says “there is no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread in restaurants,” and that other gathering spots are “unregulated spaces where there are no masks and there is no social distancing.”

The National Restaurant Association also sent a letter this week to the National Governors Association saying that “data tying systemic community outbreaks of COVID-19 to restaurants has yet to emerge.” The letter said that restaurants are “labeled as ‘super-spreaders’ and have become a convenient scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns.”

To Liz Vice, TJ's Seafood Market and Grill on Oak Lawn is her fish place. Though during the COVID-19 pandemic she says, "We are a pick up and go kind of family these days", as she leaves the Dallas restaurant with dinner, Friday, November 20, 2020.
To Liz Vice, TJ's Seafood Market and Grill on Oak Lawn is her fish place. Though during the COVID-19 pandemic she says, "We are a pick up and go kind of family these days", as she leaves the Dallas restaurant with dinner, Friday, November 20, 2020.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

But, in reality, there is data that the virus is spreading in crowded indoor spaces such as restaurants, gyms and cafes. According to research published in the journal Nature and reported in The New York Times, an analysis of cellphone mobility data from Dallas, Houston and other large cities found that “restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels” in terms of new infections, said Jure Leskovec, a computer scientist at Stanford University and senior author of the new report.

And a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “reports of exposures in restaurants have been linked to air circulation,” and that ventilation and airflow in restaurants “might affect virus transmission.” Adults who tested positive for the virus were twice as likely to have reported dining in a restaurant in the 14 days before they became ill, the study also found.

Jenkins says it’s true that more people are exposing themselves at house parties than at restaurants, but “that’s because there are a lot more home get-togethers, not because it’s safe to be around a large group of strangers at a restaurant.”

Knight says she wants Jenkins and local officials to use restaurants as part of the solution instead of viewing them as part of the problem, and to regulate people’s behavior instead of regulating spaces. Jenkins says he wants people to stop gathering with crowds of other people, including in restaurant dining rooms and at home, and to listen to what doctors are saying about how the virus is transmitted.

Alexis says restaurateurs just want some sort of consistency and clarity in what they and their customers are being asked to do.

“We’re doing what we’ve been told. If we’re told to close, we will. That is our patriotic and societal duty and we’ll do it,” he says. “But if we’re not being told to close, it seems as though the message should be to support the restaurants that are following the guidelines and doing it right. If they need us to close down, though, we need support.”

Last week, Jenkins asked Gov. Abbott for the ability to shut down indoor dining and implement other measures on a county level to slow the rate of infections and hospitalizations in Dallas.

In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Abbott said “statewide we’re not going to have another shutdown” of nonessential businesses, but he gave no indication if officials in hard-hit counties will be given the ability to close restaurant dining rooms, or if restaurant capacity limits could change to slow the spread.

Last week, an order put in place by El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego to temporarily shut down nonessential businesses, including restaurant dining rooms, was overturned by a Texas appeals court on the grounds that it contradicts Gov. Abbott’s statewide order to reopen businesses. El Paso has been hit hard by COVID-19, with deaths topping 769, bodies piling up in mobile morgues, and care being rationed.

Across the country, other measures to limit dining capacity have been taken where coronavirus cases continue to surge, from a 10 p.m. curfew at restaurants in New York City to shutdowns in Minnesota and California.

Claire Ballor . Claire Ballor is a Dallas freelance writer.

claire.ballor@gmail.com
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