Social distancing has upended the financial lives of countless Texans. And many don’t know what’s next.

Waitress is carrying a plate with meat dish

 March 17, 2020

HOUSTON — Within minutes of officials shutting down the in-person food and drink scene in the nation’s fourth-largest city, Daniel Fergus’ chef was already calling with questions.

But Fergus, owner of the restaurant Brasil on the normally bustling Westheimer Road in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, had few answers.

“We have to be concerned about staff cuts,” he said in an interview. “What we’re letting people know right now is that it could be two weeks, but people are saying eight weeks. We’re in the dark just like everyone else.”

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In a one-two punch Monday, Dallas’ mayor and officials in Harris County, Houston’s home, followed the lead of America’s other largest cities and called for businesses that draw large crowds to change their operations or shutter altogether. The closures come as all levels of government try to slow COVID-19’s spread through Texas, where the number of cases is expected to increase exponentially as increased testing capacity promises to provide a more accurate view of how prevalent the virus is among Texans.

The announcements essentially pulled the bottom out from under countless Texas businesses and residents, who now teeter on the brink of financial calamity amid a growing public health crisis. And it comes as people in several industries were already taking financial hits as Texans heed calls to stay home and only venture out for necessities.

But Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said officials had to prioritize public health over economic concerns.

“Simply put, the action all of us, including our healthy residents, make could affect whether somebody lives or dies,” she said.

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Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson echoed Hidalgo and acknowledged the fallout that is certain to follow for many in his city.

“It wasn’t easy at all,” he said of the decision at a press conference Monday afternoon. “In fact, it was gut wrenching, actually.”

Jaime Altieri-Ellis, a line cook and student in Dallas who has already lost one shift, said he didn’t know what was coming.

“It‘s really still up in the air,” he said. “Nobody really knows what’s going on.”

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The service industry in Texas had already taken a hit before Monday’s announcements. The online reservation service OpenTable reported a 42% decline in restaurant reservations in Texas as of Sunday. Other states have also seen drops in restaurant reservations — California was down 55% as of Sunday, and New York was down 47%.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, bars and clubs will be closed in Dallas and Houston, but for now, restaurants there are expected to remain open for drive-through, takeout and delivery. The orders in Dallas and Houston came without clear answers as to what will happen to the workers who will either be out of work completely or faced with significant cuts to their income streams.

“There are quite a few people that work for me who are paycheck to paycheck,” Fergus said.

Meanwhile, San Antonio’s mayor on Monday night banned gatherings of more than 50 people and asked restaurants to place tables 6 feet away from each other. Austin Mayor Steve Adler tweeted late Monday his support for closing bars and restaurants, and he will make a public announcement along with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The mere prospect of closures can be demoralizing, according to Tammy Bracewell, a Texas A&M University-Central Texas professor of criminal justice who specializes in group sociology.

“How we respond to the most vulnerable in this pandemic is going to speak volumes about us as a whole society,” she said.

As service-industry workers roil from Monday’s news, workers in other sectors are expected to feel a similar pinch, if they haven’t already. Kevin Richie, who employs 13 people at his light and installation company in Austin, said a safety net does not exist for many small-business owners.

“There are safety nets for employees if you lose your job,” said Richie, who would have to lay off his staff in order for them to collect unemployment, he added. “I don’t want to get rid of my staff. But with no income coming in, there’s nowhere really for us to look. There’s no insurance we have that specifically handles this.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has not announced an economic package for businesses like Richie’s, but he tweeted a link late Monday asking businesses owners to submit information and find out if they qualify for a federal Small Business Administration loan. Texas is trying to qualify for the program, which provides some small businesses loans of up to $2 million if they can’t obtain lines of credit somewhere else.

“We need major relief packages from both state and federal governments,” Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar said in a statement.

Abbott’s tweet came days after his declaration of a public health disaster.

“Anybody who thinks or feels or believes that they’re ill in any way, they need to stay home and work from home,” Abbott said Friday. “You may have the flu, you may have some other infectious disease. Or you may have COVID-19. We don’t need people who are sick coming into work.”

Mercedes Gutierrez doesn’t have that option. As a full-time Lyft driver who prides herself on her five-star rating and who for years has driven passengers from the two major airports in Dallas-Fort Worth to the suburbs, Gutierrez relies on strangers sitting in her Dodge Caravan.

Ride-share drivers like Gutierrez could be devastatingly impacted, according to Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants’ Union. Rollins said the economic impact of social distancing will be felt hardest by workers who depend on everyday traffic, like waiters, bartenders or ride-share drivers.

“As people stop going to restaurants where people get tips and don’t go to the movies … and don’t conduct normal life activities, there’s a lot of folks that are going to be severely disadvantaged by not getting paid,” Rollins said. “They’re not going to be able to pay their rent.”

Travis County has paused evictions until April 1, and Austin Energy tweeted that it is suspending utility shutoffs indefinitely. The San Antonio Housing Authority also suspended evictions and late fees for residents due to the new coronavirus.

Rollins said many workers may need past April 1 to get back on their feet. She said county and state officials should pause evictions or offer stimulus cash to renters until further notice to prevent amplifying the consequences of the public health crisis.

“To add to homelessness at this time is just going to make a public health disaster even more disastrous,” Rollins said.

Rollins said people who are losing income due to COVID-19 should contact their representatives about their situation and encourage government officials to order eviction stoppages and approve stimulus payments.

H-E-B, Texas’ large grocery chain, has no plans to close. The company is offering short-term work opportunities with the influx of shoppers amid the coronavirus outbreak as more and more Texans are staying home.

The temporary opportunities posted Sunday pay $9.50 an hour for baggers or customer service assistants, $13.50 an hour for daytime stockers and $15 an hour for overnight stockers. The temporary positions could last up to 60 days, H-E-B said, and could lead to permanent employment.

These employment situations in which workers have no option of working remotely are tricky, said professor Areen Omary of West Texas A&M University.

“It’s a serious dilemma for the employee and the employer,” Omary said, “because it will also be a public health issue.”

Late Monday, Gutierrez, the Lyft driver, received a notice from the company saying that she wouldn’t be assigned rides through April 7.

“We’ll see,” Gutierrez wrote in a text message. “I still need to get groceries.”

Naomi Andu and Alex Samuels contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman; H-E-B; Lyft; and West Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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