Texas restaurants reopen today and it scares me to hell.

Image via Adobe Stock.

“Let me just say that it is my hope that with the measures that are being put in place that our numbers will not spike… That is my hope.”

Those are the words of our city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, speaking at a news conference Monday, April 27 following Texas governor Greg Abbott’s announcement that the state would “reopen” today, May 1.

Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (our city manager) had planned to keep Houston’s “Stay Home/Work Safe” order in place and they had just announced that masks would be mandatory when Abbott decided to supersede all local measures to combat the spread of the deadly virus.

It was the latest volley in Abbott’s ongoing war on local authority in our state. Since coming into office, he has lobbied assiduously to punish cities like Houston and Austin for their status as sanctuary cities and for their progressive policies on reproductive rights.

This week, he took it a step further: now he’s playing with life and death.

In just a few hours, scores of restaurants across Houston will begin opening their doors for “dine-in” service. Abbott has ordered that they can only operate at 25 percent capacity. But beyond that, he’s given no guidance on how restaurateurs can keep their staff and customers safe and how they can curb COVID-19’s spread.

Some in our city are looking to Georgia’s example. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, issued these guidelines for reopening restaurants last week (Georgia’s restaurants were allowed to reopen on Monday).

But with no official norms or regulations in place, Houston’s restaurant managers are on their own in terms of how they operate and what safety measures they adopt.*

In other words, it’s the wild west when it comes to culinary hygiene. Concerned (however courageous) restaurant-goers have no way of knowing with confidence what safety protocols restaurants owners have put into place, if any.

I understand the economic logic behind reopening. And I recognize that Texas has “flattened the curve.” But on the same day that “Texas reports most deaths in a day from COVID-19” (a story that appears on the landing page of the Houston Chronicle this morning), wouldn’t it be prudent to provide businesses like restaurants — where proper hygiene is always essential for safety — with more robust guidance?

Just like the families of countless wine professionals across our state, ours is struggling to make ends meet in the time of the pandemic. It’s my hope that we’ll all be able to get back to work as soon as possible. But without the proper guidance, Abbot’s order is a genuine gastronomic “go to Hell” to Houston and Austin where local authorities have fought to keep restrictions in place.

Texas reopens today and I am scared as hell for dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, and the customers they will serve.

This isn’t political. It’s just common sense.

I encourage you to watch Mayor Turner’s news conference. His remarks moved me to tears when I watched them in real time. He and Judge Hidalgo are true American heroes.

*”‘Reopened services’ shall consist of the following,” wrote Abbott in his decree, listing which businesses could reopen today, including dining establishments: “Dine-in restaurant services, for restaurants that operate at up to 25 percent of the total listed occupancy of the restaurant…”

He specifies that the order only applies to restaurants “that have less than 51 percent of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages” and he also prohibits valet parking except for “except for vehicles with placards or plates for disabled parking.”

But there is no mention of masks, gloves, hand-washing, or testing, for example.

In all fairness to our heartless governor, he does offer an overarching recommendation that reopened businesses “should implement social distancing… and practice good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation.” But it’s just advice, not an order. “Individuals are encouraged to wear appropriate face coverings,” he writes, “but no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”

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