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An empty patio at a Dallas restaurant
Empty patios and dining rooms could become the norm again

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A Major Surge in New COVID-19 Cases Could Tank Texas’s Restaurant Recovery

Business is finally getting back to normal, but a surge in cases among unvaccinated Texans could stymie recovery

There’s no understating how brutal the COVID-19 pandemic was for restaurants. Countless establishments closed their doors for good, those that did manage to stay open hobbled along on takeout and delivery orders, and workers left the industry en masse as they faced both potential illness and abuse from customers who refused to wear masks.

But since March, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas was “100 percent open for business,” and rescinded all of the guidelines previously implemented to stem the spread of the virus, businesses started to make a comeback. After being stuck indoors for months, Texans were desperate to get out, see their friends, and support their neighborhood bars and restaurants. It finally seemed like the state was out of the woods. Now, though, a significant spike in new COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant threatens that recovery.

On Monday, July 20, Dallas County announced 406 new COVID-19 cases, representing a surge in North Texas. “This is our highest one-day total of new cases since early March and reflects the trends we’re seeing with increasing hospitalizations and the consequences of the Delta variant,” Jenkins said. “Don’t delay any longer and get vaccinated today.” Evidence of the imminent surge has been mounting for weeks, as cases rose in area suburbs, including significant spikes in new cases in Addison, Sachse, and Garland.

All of this is really bad news for everyday Texans and restaurants, who were just starting to find their footing as diners returned to their favorite establishments in droves. These businesses have been busy; in fact, they’re so busy that pretty much every restaurant owner in town has complained about a so-called “hiring crisis” that won’t allow them to staff their restaurants fully. But as COVID cases spike, it’s likely that many diners will stay at home in an effort to prevent spreading the virus.

How Texans reacted after Gov. Abbott lifted the restrictions back in March bears that out. Many dining rooms sat empty for weeks, as diners waited to be vaccinated before venturing back out into the world of restaurants. Workers did the same, choosing to work at establishments that would still continue to enforce guidelines like social distancing and mask-wearing in the absence of the statewide mandate. The real comeback for restaurants didn’t begin until later, in April and May, after the vaccine became available to all Texans over the age of 18.

In Texas, where COVID-19 regulations were — even at the peak of the pandemic — pretty lax, it’s clear that lifting those limited restrictions back in March didn’t cause any sort of immediate surge in new cases of the virus. But that was well before the delta variant of COVID-19 became the dominant strain identified in so many new cases that, statewide, the testing positivity rate has surged to more than 10 percent. If people are afraid of contracting the virus, they’re not going to engage in behaviors that have been proven to be risky during the pandemic, like indoor dining.

A recent analysis of more than 9,000 workers across the service sector indicates that only about half of the workers in the industry have been vaccinated, thanks in large part to systemic barriers like a lack of health insurance or paid time-off. As long as that continues to be the case, restaurants will always inherently be a vector of COVID spread.

It’s true that the delta variant mostly threatens people who have not yet received the COVID-19 vaccination, but there are still plenty of those folks in Dallas County. According to data provided by Jenkins’s office, about 58 percent of Dallas County residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Only about 46 percent of people in Dallas County over the age of 18 are fully vaccinated, which leaves hundreds of thousands of adults vulnerable to contracting — and spreading — the virus.

Perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of children under the age of 12, who still do not have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Outbreaks of the virus are still cropping up across the region at day camps and childcare facilities. Parents in the area are rightfully concerned about their children getting sick at school, so why would they consider bringing them to a restaurant — places where people aren’t required to wear masks or show any proof of vaccination?

Xavier Academy In Houston Hosts COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic For 12-15 Year Olds
Children under the age of 12 still can’t receive a COVID vaccine
Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

At this point, it’s highly unlikely that, regardless of how bad it gets, Gov. Abbott will attempt to reinstate capacity limits or other restrictions that were employed during the pandemic. It’s a terribly unpopular decision among Republicans, and next year is an election year. As a result, people are left to make decisions for themselves about what is safe to do amid this surge. The most cautious among them will stay at home.

The recovery that restaurants have been experiencing since March is perilously fragile. Many establishments are paying down the debt they accrued during the pandemic while trying to stay afloat, which makes every dollar spent in a dining room crucial. Thanks to supply chain issues, rising labor costs, and inflation, running a restaurant is also getting more expensive by the day. Without statewide capacity restrictions, it’s unreasonable to assume that businesses would voluntarily choose to limit their ability to make money, especially right now.

At the moment, the only thing that Texans can do to reverse this trend is to get vaccinated and to encourage everyone they know to get vaccinated. For most people, especially those who have access to paid sick time, there are few excuses for not being vaccinated. Currently, it’s possible to walk into practically any drugstore or pharmacy and receive a vaccine, free of charge. Repeated studies have shown the efficacy and safety of the vaccine, despite a flood of disinformation from anti-vaxxers and right-wing politicians.

If Texans want their favorite restaurants and bars to survive, we have to ensure that they are safe to visit.

To find a COVID-19 vaccine near you, visit the CDC’s national database of vaccine providers.

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