By MARICE RICHTER
With permission to re-open several types of shuttered businesses, many Fort Worth retailers and restaurant owners wasted no time setting up to welcome shoppers and diners on May 1.
With their operations battered by shelter-in-place and emergency restrictive orders for more than a month, some owners were eager to bring back workers and begin earning revenue again.
But not all local business owners embraced Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to allow retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, shopping malls, museums and libraries to re-open with limited capacity. Many chose to stay closed over concern for health and safety for themselves, their employees and their patrons as COVID-19 cases continue to grow.
Either way, there will be challenges.
Those that do open will have to follow strict protocols regarding masks and protective gear for employees, handwashing, sanitizing, social distancing and other safety measures, under a new set of guidelines the city of Fort Worth is creating. Added to that, state rules limit the number of patrons to 25 percent of capacity at least for the time being, dimming the prospects of profitability in the short term.
Those that don’t open, particularly small independents, are likely to continue to struggle financially and some could shut down permanently.
About 40 percent of independent restaurants are expected to open within days of May 1 while about 60 percent will continue with delivery and curbside operations, restaurateur Jon Bonnell, who helped advise the city’s guideline committee, announced on Mayor Betsy Price’s Facebook Live video on April 29.
Retail shop owners and other types of businesses that can only face the same tough decisions as restaurants as they try to balance financial survival and safety. Complicating those decisions are the mixed messages from elected officials that encourage people to stay home as the Texas economy is re-opening.
Public health professionals continue to press the stay-at-home message.
The Fort Worth City Council adopted a new resolution on April 29 in support of staying home, which does not conflict with Abbott’s order, Price announced, adding that all cities and counties must abide by Abbott’s orders regardless of whether everyone agrees.
“I strongly encourage you to continue to stay home when you don’t have to,” Price said on Facebook Live. “We’ll ease into this but we want to do it safely.”
Regardless of the decision, the unknown for business owners is whether consumers are willing to risk venturing out without the virus being contained.
“There is pent up demand among young consumers,” said Yash Bhagwat, assistant professor of marketing in the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University.
The results of a recent survey by the market research firm TruePublic, millennial and Gen Z consumers are ready to return to bars and restaurants, but they are not ready to attend large gatherings such as music festivals or sporting events. These consumers are also not ready to go to gyms, movie theaters or take international vacations, Bhagwat said.
Young consumers who are earning a salary are eager to spend, she said.
“Their spending will likely be local as they are still hesitant to travel, which is good news for the restaurant industry, she said.
Jessica Miller Essl, who co-owns M2GVentures with her twin sister, Susan Gruppi, agrees that the early customer makeup “will skew younger.”
Through their real estate investment and development business, Essl works closely with retail tenants. She predicts that restaurants with patios for outdoor dining spaces “will be winners.”
She also predicts that national chain operators will have a larger presence in the local market than small, independently owned restaurants and stores.
“Smaller, locally-owned shops are still thinking through childcare, etc.,” she said. “That may affect them more than national tenants with large amounts of employees.”
Safety is the top concern for about 90 percent of the operators of the 286 restaurants and retail outlets that in Near Southside.
“Most of us don’t feel that opening is the right thing to do,” said Megan Henderson, director of events and communications for the nonprofit Near Southside Inc., which is coordinating revitalization of the 1,400-acre business and residential community south of downtown.
Made up of mostly homegrown small businesses, enforcing rules on capacity and social distancing are nearly impossible in the tiny spaces many of these retailers and restaurants occupy, she said.
Julie Hatch Fairley, who finally achieved her long-time dream of opening a yarn and knitting shop, last fall, said her Southside store is too small meet social distancing requirements and allowing shoppers to touch her large selection of yarn is unsafe.
Instead, most businesses are sticking with the online orders and curbside pickup of innovative maker kits and to-go packs that have helped generate enough revenue to pay the rent and keep the lights on during the shutdown.
“I’m comfortable with what I am doing and see no reason to change it,” she said.
Martin Thompson, owner of Cat City Grill in the Near Southside, said he has regular customers who are ready to dine out. To accommodate his regulars who are not ready, he will continue to offer family packs for curbside pickup.
“I understand there are people who are itching to get out and dine and I appreciate that it is too soon for others,” he said.
Restaurants and other small business owners appear to be united in their determination to support the decisions of their peers.
“If you decide to remain closed, we will stand and clap for you,” Henderson said. “If you decide to open, we will stand and applaud you.”
As for his own restaurants, Bonnell announced that he will reopen both locations of Buffalo Bros. Pizza, Wings & Subs on May 1. Curbside, to-go and delivery still will be available.
But reopening Bonnell’s and Waters restaurants is not financially feasible at 25 percent capacity, but curbside pickup of family meals will continue.
“Please be understanding of all restaurants as they choose their best paths forward,” he stated on social media. “This is a very difficult time for all of them and many will not survive this crisis.”
As the owner of a high-profile restaurant group in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and beyond, Tim Love has been planning his reopening since the day Tarrant County and the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington issued orders that shut down dine-in service about six weeks ago.
Love kept on the management team from his 14 restaurants on his payroll to pivot to pivot to a family pack to-go operation to help support his charitable undertaking of serving free lunch and dinner to anyone in need throughout the shutdown.
“We have fed about 10,000 people as of this week,” he said.
Love said he intends to re-open nine restaurants on May 1, a yeoman’s task under the best of circumstances, made even more difficult by the rigid safety standards he has set for his establishments. He has also planned for every potential hiccup, including allowing recalled employees two weeks of paid time off to arrange childcare.
“I’m going further than what the city of Fort Worth is recommending,” he said. His rules will include temperature checks for employees and patrons, mandatory handwashing for employees every 30 minutes and frequent professional sanitizing.
“We are being very, very vigilant because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “We have to keep everything extremely safe because it is the only way we can back to where we were.”
Although opening at a limited 25 percent capacity probably won’t be profitable, Love said it would give his restaurants the opportunity to test their safety measures and operating procedures.
“It’s baby steps,” he said. “We’ve got to get people back to work and make sure are protocols are good. No one, at least in our lifetimes, has ever tried to recover from a pandemic before.”