As restaurants and retailers look to open their doors again this weekend following the COVID-19 health crisis, questions remain about how to do this safely.
Denison city leaders and representatives took the opportunity to answer some of these questions Thursday in a Q&A session with local business owners.
Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbot announced that he would be letting a previous executive order that restricted many businesses lapse on Friday. In it’s place, Abbott issued a new executive order, which outlined guidelines that would allow some of these businesses to reopen.
“I said that other day that on Friday we are going to have a grand reopening,” Denison Mayor Janet Gott said. “It is not going to have a lot of fanfare because we are all going to be kind of cautious, but it is a beginning and I think we ought to look at it that way.”
During the nearly hour-long voice conference, city leaders fielded questions regarding the steps that businesses must take to protect customers from possible exposure to the Coronavirus.
“The purpose of this call is to provide information and answer questions that Denison businesses might have as they look to open for business again in the shadow of COVID-19,” City Manager Jud Rex said.
During what Abbot described as the first phase of lifting restrictions on gatherings and businesses, Abbott said the majority of retailers and restaurants will be able to open at quarter capacity.
While this order applies to the majority of retail and restaurants, some exceptions remain. Bars, nail salons, barbers and gyms are still ordered to remain closed until a future date.
Abbott said details on a second phase are expected to be released some time in mid-May, but this would hinge on cases of COVID-19 remaining low throughout the state.
“I think he has made it clear that he has not made that decision,” Gott said. “He may do it by then, but I think it is very clear he hasn’t made that decision yet.“
In the lead up to the opening, city officials have been contacting area restaurants to provide details on the order and what restrictions are in place.
“We have dozens of restaurants and food establishments, so of which may not be aware of the reopening guidelines and we want to be a resource and support their efforts where it is needed,” Rex said.
City officials said the allowed attendance is based on the capacity of the building, which can be found through the city of in a business’ certificate of occupancy. However, Gott said this is a starting point and businesses should still allow enough space between customers to allow for social distancing.
“You get one chance to make a first impression,” Gott said. “In this case, you get one chance to make people feel safe when they come into your restaurant or your facility of whatever kind it is. It will be one and done if you don’t make them feel safe when they come to eat with you, shop with you and do business with you.”
Gott and Rex gave examples of how some businesses are taking this a step further. A restaurant is opening on a reservation basis, meanwhile another is using an online app to track customers and let them know when it is their turn to enter.
A recurring point of conversation during Thursday’s meeting was regarding clubs and similar organizations.
“The governor’s guidance generally is that settings of more than 10 people should be avoided. It also says avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people in circumstances that do not allow for adequate social distancing”
In discussing the restrictions, multiple attendees asked why these restrictions were in place, but places of worship were not closed.
Gott noted that despite no order being in place, many churches chose to close their doors as a safety precaution. Gott also noted the complications that come from a governor ordering a church to be closed.
“The church component really is a struggle. ... Yes, he never mandated that churches close, but we all know that churches closed,” she said.
Gott noted that the situation with churches is complicated and said she and other leaders would be consulting local state representatives for more guidance.
With the first phase, Rex said the city is being charged with the roll out of the openings. However, Rex said the city does not want to take an enforcement role, and instead is better equiped to provide guidance.
“We did our best to troubleshoot the complaints that we got in a very supportive way,” Rex said, regarding the first executive order. “During this reopening phase, the city’s approach is not really going to focus on enforcement, but support. We recognize that for you to open your business now is a significant change.”
Michael Hutchins is the local government reporter for the Herald Democrat. He can be reached at email@example.com.