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Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins, wearing a grey suit, blue shirt, and red tie, standing at a podium.
Judge Clay Jenkins in 2014
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Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins Is Rooting for the City’s Bars and Restaurants

The judge in charge of Dallas’s coronavirus response sounds off on dining out safely and why restaurants should be included in the next federal stimulus package

Since the beginning of March, Dallas county judge Clay Jenkins has been hard at work, trying to mitigate the impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic on both people and businesses in North Texas. He’s also, like many of the rest of us, been stuck indoors, staying away from restaurant dining rooms and ordering as much takeout as possible to keep his favorite establishments afloat.

Eater sat down with Jenkins to talk about whether or not it’s safe to dine in right now, the possibility of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reopening bars in the coming weeks, and whether or not bars and restaurants should be included in the next federal stimulus package.

Eater Dallas: Have you eaten at a restaurant since Gov. Greg Abbott allowed dining rooms to reopen at limited capacity in May?

Judge Clay Jenkins: I have not. I’ve done takeout and curbside pickup, a lot of times from Doce Mesas on McKinney Avenue and quite a few pizzas, from Campisi’s and Fireside Pies. We’ve gotten some barbecue, some great Thai food at Thai Opal.

Based on what you’re hearing from experts, what would make you feel safe to eat inside a restaurant?

I want to know whether or not the management of the restaurant is taking this seriously. Is the staff all wearing masks? Are those masks secure over their noses? Are the tables appropriately spaced? I think if people see a haphazard approach, where people are pulling down their masks to talk or owners are trying to cram in a few more tables than they should, it makes you question what other corners are being cut.

Do you think most restaurant owners are complying with the rules?

I can’t say from personal experience because I haven’t been in a restaurant, but I think so. There was one restaurant early on that wouldn’t let its waitstaff wear masks, and that ultimately resulted in a lawsuit. When that made the news, the community wanted to know what was going on in the back of that restaurant. It wasn’t a good PR move.

I think most restaurateurs — 99.9 percent — are very serious about cleanliness, food handling, and safety. Hospitality is their livelihood, and if people don’t feel safe and enjoy the experience at a restaurant, they won’t come back.

Do you think it’s safe for most people to eat at restaurants right now?

All things being equal, the doctors still point out that it’s safer to do takeout or curbside. If you are going to eat somewhere, it’s preferable to sit on the patio. But it’s even more preferable to take it home with you. If you are over the age of 65 or have a high-risk condition, you still want to stay at home.

Last week, Gov. Abbott hinted that he might soon be looking to loosen restrictions on businesses that have been required to close or limit capacity. Do you think that could mean allowing bars to reopen, even at reduced capacity?

I sure hope not. I feel for the bar owners, but in places where the bars are open, that’s where you’re seeing the big spread, particularly around the college campuses. Some of our big spread events have come from bars.

The socialization when you’re at a bar is a problem. You tend to move around a little bit more, people are more gregarious and more careless with masking. It’s pretty hard to drink through a straw with a mask on, period. If we open up the bars too quickly, that would be something that could really hurt our other businesses.

What about the mask requirement?

The worst thing he could do is make wearing masks an option in public places. Even when the masking requirement was just in place for Dallas County, we started seeing a big decline in new cases. When the governor joined us on July 2 with the statewide mandate, we saw another big decline that’s still continuing. Keeping the bars closed and the masks on is really going to be important.

Last week, our doctors moved Dallas County’s COVID-19 threat level from red to orange. It’s been legal to eat at restaurants for months, but a lot of people want to know when the doctors think it’s safe. Now, the doctors say that if you’re under 65 and have no complicating conditions, they think it’s safe to eat inside a restaurant where the tables are spaced six feet apart and everyone’s wearing masks. If [Gov. Abbott] makes masks permissive, the cases are going to shoot back up. The goal is to get from orange to yellow, when we can do more fun stuff and not have to go the long way again.

In your mind, what needs to happen for bars to reopen?

We want to get the positivity rate below 5 percent, and when you reopen, you reopen patio service first. It seems like droplets dissipate more quickly in the outdoors, but sitting on a patio in early September in Texas is not particularly appealing to people. But we’re getting into the cool months, and that may be a way for bar owners to get back in the game.

Many of Dallas’s bars are applying under the TABC waiver to get licenses to operate as restaurants. Are you concerned that this will result in more crowded establishments, as we’ve already seen with places like Bottled Blonde in Deep Ellum?

We are concerned. If what ends up happening is bars are packed because it’s now possible to buy a sandwich with your drink, that’s not going to have a different outcome from just opening the bars. It’s a tough situation, because I’ve got a lot of friends who own and work at bars and restaurants and I hate to see what they’re going through. It’s terrible.

But bars seem to be — and this is not just in Texas but around the United States and other countries — uniquely high spread environments. When you get a bunch of people together in a bar, with their masks pulled down to drink, bad things happen. We’ve got to think about trying to keep as many people healthy as possible, and as many businesses open as possible. I think our best hope is opening back up for outdoor service and doing it with a lot of distancing.

Do you think restaurants and bars will be included in upcoming pandemic relief packages, whether on the state or federal level?

Boy, they should be. If anybody needs another round of stimulus, it’s our restaurants and bars. I have been pleading with people to order takeout and support their favorite restaurants, or they won’t be here when this pandemic is over. Our restaurants and bars have really been hurting, and those employees have been hurting. If legislators are going to pick the people most deserving of another round of stimulus, restaurants and bars need to be at the top of that list.

Do you think it’s likely that restaurants and bars will receive any relief?

I’ve been talking to Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, and I think the chances are pretty good. The Democratic plan is more generous in terms of stimulus, and the Republican plan should cover bars and restaurants. [Republicans] want to do another round of something similar to Payroll Protection Program loans, but businesses who apply for those loans will have to demonstrate a 50 percent drop in revenue. I certainly think our restaurants and bars can show that.

I hope they’ll land somewhere in the middle, between what the House Democrats proposed and the Senate Republicans’s plan, so that they can help more businesses. They need to loosen it up on the Senate side to cover people who need the help to keep their businesses open.

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