Geronimo Lopez of Botika at the Pearl ultimately decided against reopening his dining room.
In late March, the Texas Restaurant Association estimated that as many as 500,000 bar and restaurant jobs could be lost due to the pandemic. As of April 30, the actual numbers revealed an even more tragic reality: some 680,000 jobs have evaporated since COVID-19 spread to the U.S.
Despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement last week that restaurants could reopen at limited capacity, many in San Antonio’s food-service industry remain skeptical.
The governor’s “strike force” to oversee the project is headed by a key GOP donor and a lobbyist, and includes only three doctors. That has some local restaurant and bar professionals questioning whether the decisions are being made with their interests in mind.
“All white men, not one person of color on camera,” Rebel Mariposa, chef-owner of LGBTQ-friendly La Botanica on the St. Mary’s Strip, said of Abbott’s press conference unveiling the plan. “Even the translator was a white man.”
“It’s like, ‘Are you even talking to me?’” she added.
Alamo City industry insiders worry about the consequences for both their workers and customers, especially since COVID-19 infections across the state were still rising at press time. If Abbott’s pro-business gamble results in more hospitalizations, service workers will be facing not just health consequences but potential financial ruin.
“[Abbott] says he wants to protect those that are most vulnerable to the virus, but by reopening restaurants so early, he’s really not,” said Haleigh Guillory, bar instructor at the Culinary Institute of America campus at the Pearl.
“Socioeconomically, industry workers are on the lower end of the income spectrum. That means no access to health insurance in most cases. Where’s the accountability when it comes to the establishments keeping their employees healthy and safe?”
In virtually every one of the dozen interviews the Current
did to research this article, culinary professionals sounded weary, tired. It’s easy to see them as sea captains weathering a storm, beaten down yet preparing for the rough waters yet to come.
“It’s heartbreaking to sit here every day and look at the dining room empty,” said Geronimo Lopez, owner of Botika at the Pearl. “It’s been my life for 30 years, and the stress is overwhelming. We have all of these people, our work family, behind us that depend on us, and the reality is that there is no right answer.”
Botika’s patio will be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing and to allow guests to enjoy to-go meals, but Lopez ultimately decided not to reopen the dining room.
Leo Davila of Catch the Wave, a popular San Antonio food truck, was set to sign the lease on a brick-and-mortar space earlier this year, but was unable to move forward amid the turmoil that lead up to the shutdown.
“This thing really cut us at the knees,” he said. “We were on track to sign a lease on a great space to start rocking and rolling with full production. COVID halted all of our progress.”
‘More Tired Than I’ve Ever Been’
Even those working in restaurants preparing to reopen say they’re unsure whether operating at 25% capacity will be enough to justify the risk and the added overhead.
“Even with the opportunity to open so soon, we’ll still have to continue to make alternate plans to make sure we stay viable,” said Haran Hernandez, a dining room manager at the Winchester in Alamo Heights. “Curbside services, pantry items, groceries… The work doesn’t stop when the doors open.”
The Winchester’s staff has been providing free weekly meals for furloughed service industry professionals since the middle of March.
“I see 200 industry people every week, and I’d say 50% still don’t have any income,” said JR Vega, the restaurant’s general manager. “We’re just hoping for an option that’s not going to hurt us worse in the long term, before people start losing their homes, losing everything.”
While the Winchester has been offering curbside service during the stay-at-home order, it’s amounted to a lot of work for just 10% of its normal sales.
“I’m more tired than I’ve ever been,” Vega added.
Following an all-staff meeting to discuss its options, the Winchester’s employees decided to reopen May 1.
But, at the end of the day, many San Antonio restaurant professionals say they’re not prepared to reopen — at least not it won’t put their lives and livelihoods at further risk.
“What I want most in the world right now is to go to a bar and hug my friends,” said Aaron Peña, owner of Squeezebox on the St. Mary’s Strip. “It’s just not feasible right now if I want my friends to be safe.”
It’s not just the industry workers who are wary of returning to dining rooms. A HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 65% of Americans would continue to stay home even with no limitations in place.
In a Bexar Facts poll, almost 60% of San Antonio-area respondents said they worry the “worst is yet to come” with the pandemic.
Hours after Abbott’s announcement, the Texas Workforce Commission released a statement that said, “If a business reopens and an employee chooses not to return to work, they become ineligible for unemployment.”
“The governor doesn’t give a shit about us,” Peña said. “He wants his contributors and donors to be happy, so he’s going to do what he needs to do to benefit his pocketbook.”
There’s a clear divide between those who sheltered in place, worked from home and joked about being on a “forced staycation” and those who fought tirelessly to offer hospitality and comfort to Texans any way they could.
Local restaurant professionals say it’s about time state officials finally show them the same level of respect.
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