A lot has happened this week. As protests in Dallas continue, so too does the pandemic and the reopening of Texas’ economy.
This week Dallas County saw a record-high spike in cases, which was a predicted concern considering Memorial Day activities. The good news is that hospital admissions and ICU bed occupancy has remained relatively flat. So the push to get the economy back to some sort of semblance of normal goes on. On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the latest guidelines on reopening the Texas economy, among them: all businesses that are currently operating at 25 percent, such as bars, can move to 50 percent capacity but patrons must be seated.
Restaurants can now seat parties of up to 10 people. Beginning June 12, restaurants can increase indoor occupancy to 75 percent capacity.
While these particular restrictions loosen, another has impacted businesses already strained during the pandemic: an expanded curfew zone. The curfew order requires a shut-down of travel and traffic by 7 p.m., which means ending dinner service much earlier to allow time for cleaning and closing. It issues a drastic blow to restaurants by eliminating dinner service.
In Deep Ellum, Ichigoh Ramen Lounge owner George Itoh says his stream of clientele has been reduced to a lunchtime trickle.
“We took a big hit,” he says. Business was finally getting better, he says, with diners beginning to venture out. But the curfew wiped away dinner service—both dine in and takeout. And while the period hasn’t been nearly as long as the initial pandemic-related closing, “It felt like it hurt us even more, because we were already weakened,” says Itoh.
He recalls, throughout the week, experiencing the same sense he had when he was working and living in New York after 9/11—the same impression of entering a zone where everything had changed in an instant. Nearby, not far from a block where Deep Ellum boutiques were vandalized, Diane Fourton of Pecan Lodge says the curfew was “a devastating blow” for her barbecue business, which was just beginning to get back on its feet with extended hours and delivery apps. “[It] essentially eliminated the modest progress we’d started making in response to COVID-19,” she says.
At the Dallas Farmers Market, Ronelle Plaza, an employee at Caribbean Cabana says, “We were closing at 5 p.m. because of COVID-19.” Then, on Sunday, tenants were asked to shutter The Shed midday and vacate. “They told us we had 30 minutes,” Plaza says of the hasty evacuation. “It came as a shock.” Now, the business has been closing earlier.
“I’m more partial to the protesters as a Black female,” Plaza says. “But at the same time, I feel like we should be able to tell the difference,” she says, lamenting the effect on Black-owned businesses of recent demonstrations that turned violent and triggered the police chief and the mayor to establish a curfew. It’s not clear when it will expire. “Because there are some business owners who look like myself who would like to be at peace knowing their business isn’t going to be looted,” she says.
Neighboring restaurateur George Kaiho of KaTip, which serves casual Thai food, took a day off and closed entirely when the Dallas Farmers Market shuttered early. His business is, he says, “losing a lot,” no longer buoyed by the takeout that usually stretches until 9 p.m.
“The equality, I’m all for it,” he says. Friends of his have participated in the peaceful protests. But he laments the repercussions of the violent outcroppings. “It could have been 100 percent peaceful from start to end. But it didn’t turn out that way.”
He pities the restaurants that were about to reopen, hiring back staff or raising occupancy.
Tei-An, the Japanese soba house in the Arts District, was nearing its reopening with elegant and careful dinner service—with only two table turns per night and thorough cleaning between each, as well as measures like temperature cameras. They had flown in provisions—including fish from Japan for their coveted sashimi—for a Tuesday opening, but when the curfew was announced, the team shifted to lunch and has been holding lunch service all week in order to use the product. They hope to open for dinner next week, according to general manager Best Ranglek, but he speaks to the sense of being at the mercy of external forces. “It is what it is,” he says. “We understand. No one is mad.” As for the future, “The decision is not entirely our own. We have to wait and see a lot of things.” It’s a limbo.
Meanwhile, on Oak Lawn Avenue, Matt McCallister’s Homewood is between two curfew zones and in just such a limbo: at the boundaries of zones barely more than a block away on either side, and navigating the interrupted and sporadic service. On Sunday, the restaurant honored its 11 covers and then closed early, and service hours have been fluctuating.
“I support all peaceful protests,” says McCallister. It’s just when “things get escalated” that the fallout occurs. But, like many others, he takes the bigger view: “The reality that we’re currently in takes precedence. And it’s important.”
Those who can hope for lunchtime service to pick up. Others wait patiently for the order to be lifted so they can resume figuring out how to face the tricky reality of operating a place of communal gathering in the time of COVID-19. The pandemic, after all, is not going away.