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Reducing Restaurant Capacity (Again) Isn’t Going to Accomplish Much

Restaurants need relief, not another nine months of bleak business and confusing regulations

Rapscallion
The empty bar at Rapscallion on Greenville Avenue
EDFW

On December 3, an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott forced Dallas County restaurants to reduce their capacity from 75 to 50 percent. The reduction had been built into the order as an automatic move, triggered by an increase in total bed utilization at the region’s hospitals. But will it actually have a real impact on slowing down the spread of COVID-19?

At least a few Dallas restaurateurs aren’t so sure that it will. “The responsible restaurants that are already preventing viral spread will not be affected by this change,” TJ’s Seafood and Malibu Poke owner Jon Alexis tells Eater. “And the restaurants that have been ignoring the precautions will continue to do so, as there is admittedly no ability to enforce the rules.”

By “restaurants that have been ignoring the precautions,” Alexis means spots like Bottled Blonde, which have been repeatedly investigated by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission over violating COVID-19 protocols. Some bars, including Marty’s Live and Harris House of Heroes, have temporarily lost their liquor licenses after failing to maintain social distancing and allowing diners to walk around without masks, but there have been few (if any) permanent consequences for establishments that habitually break the rules.

According to GA-32, the most recent executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott, the capacity reduction is literally the only thing that the state will allow officials like Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins to do in order to mitigate the spread. The state has been clear that additional measures, like requiring restaurants to close their dining rooms altogether, are in direct conflict with the governor’s orders. When cities like El Paso have attempted to institute more strict guidelines, such as curfews, they have faced significant pushback from leadership in Austin, including lawsuits.

And so now that restaurants are being asked to pull back capacity yet again, their owners’ frustration is hitting a boiling point. “The vast majority of independent restaurants haven’t been reaching even 50% inside occupancy the last couple weeks in any instance, so what the fuck does telling us we can only seat at 50% do,” Rapscallion and Boulevardier co-owner Brooks Anderson wrote in a fiery Facebook post on Thursday. “We’re already at 50% or less without your interference.”

When reached for comment, Anderson said that he didn’t think the new restriction would have any impact on the spread of COVID-19 right now for that exact reason — his dining rooms are emptier than ever.

Jay Jerrier, who operates the Cane Rosso pizza empire, agrees with that sentiment. After lengthy construction delays and the chaos of the pandemic, the chain just opened its newest location in Arlington, and it’s one of the few Cane Rosso outposts that’s even getting close to 50 percent occupied. “It’s nearly impossible, if you’re following the 6 foot distance guidelines, to get much over 50 percent capacity for our restaurants,” Jerrier says. “Dine-in traffic is pretty much down across the board, so we’re not running into any wait or capacity issues.”

Pretty much every restaurateur Eater has spoken with in the last nine months has been exasperated by both the state and federal governments’ response to the crisis, which has essentially left millions of small businesses in the hospitality industry out in the cold, with little prospect for relief in sight. “Where is the federal government to whom I have been paying taxes for 25 years? Where is the federal assistance for the industries that have been devastated by COVID,” Anderson wrote. “This is gonna be the longest, darkest winter in US history. But then again, the experts have been telling us that since Spring.”

Even the prospect of future relief looks pretty bleak. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are working on a potential stimulus deal right now, but restaurants are left entirely out of the package that’s currently being negotiated. “Passing the RESTAURANTS Act would really help everyone in the industry,” Jerrier says. “But I think we’ve all given up hope on that happening anytime soon, if at all.”

Jerrier’s referring to a bill that would, if passed, funnel more than $100 billion to help independent restaurants that have nearly been crushed by the pandemic. Even though the House passed a version of the bill in October, there’s almost zero meaningful support for the RESTAURANTS Act in the Senate. On the state level, Abbott hasn’t offered so much as a single dime to struggling restaurants.

If he actually wants to help restaurants, Abbott needs to think more broadly than this meaningless gesture that’s intended to make it appear as though he’s actually doing something to stem the spread of the virus while claiming to support businesses. What’s really happening is that these businesses are being left to fend for themselves, forced to make a choice between doing the right thing by keeping capacity limits low or breaking the rules in an attempt to turn a profit.

What businesses need right now is a legitimate strategy to mitigate the spread of the virus, because operating at normal capacity doesn’t seem like it’s on the horizon for restaurants as the virus continues to worsen. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t appear that the government, at any level, has a plan for that to happen. In its absence, here’s a not-so-radical proposal: pay restaurants to stay closed, and pay their workers to stay the hell at home.

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