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Texas Restaurant Association

The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

Have we gone from “concerned” to “alarmed” yet?

We’re getting there.

With cases of the coronavirus surging to record levels in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recommended Tuesday that Texans stay home as much as possible and for the first time moved to allow the tightening of two kinds of restrictions that had been eased under his reopening plan.

“We want to make sure that everyone reinforces the best safe practices of wearing a mask, hand sanitization, maintaining safe distance, but importantly, because the spread is so rampant right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home,” Abbott said during an early-afternoon interview with KBTX-TV in Bryan. “Unless you do need to go out, the safest place for you is at your home.”

Within hours, Abbott made two announcements to alter the reopening process. He scaled back a previous statewide order and gave local officials the ability to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people, a threshold he originally set at 500 people. And Abbott said the state would enact mandatory health standards for child care centers after prior rules became voluntary earlier this month.

The moves came a day after Abbott said at a news conference that the coronavirus was spreading at an “unacceptable rate” but did not offer any new policies to stem the virus’ spread. Instead, he reiterated long-established guidelines such as social distancing and pointed out that the state was increasingly cracking down on businesses that allow large crowds. At the news conference, Abbott also encouraged Texans to stay home, albeit in less explicit terms than he did in the KBTX interview.

The Monday news conference marked a newly urgent tone by Abbott, which he continued into Tuesday. During TV interviews in the noon hour, he made the somewhat unusual move of getting ahead of the state’s daily announcement of new coronavirus cases, bracing audiences for a new record high exceeding 5,000 — a big increase over the last peak of 4,430 on Saturday.

Before sharing the new record figure with KBTX, Abbott said he was trying to “make sure people around the state really comprehend the magnitude of the challenge we’re dealing with.”

By the end of the afternoon, the state Department of State Health Services had reported the precise number: 5,489 new cases.

At the same time, two metrics that Abbott has prioritized — hospitalization levels and positivity rate — continued to trend in the wrong direction. Hospitalizations reached 4,092, marking the 12th straight day of a new peak. The positivity rate — or the ratio of cases to tests, presented by the state as a seven-day average — reached 9.76%, back to the level it was at in mid-April.

It’s bad, y’all.

The Texas Medical Center’s intensive care capacity could be exceeded as soon as Thursday because of the surge in COVID-19 patients, the hospital system projects.

A TMC model also predicts ICU surge capacity — extra, temporary beds and equipment used in emergencies — could be exceeded as soon as July 6 if the steep rate of new COVID hospitalizations continues, the most aggressive modeling to date.

Eleven leaders of the system’s member hospitals and medical schools said in a joint statement that COVID-related admissions were increasing at an “alarming rate,” stretching the capacity of ICU units. Texas Children’s Hospital this week began admitting adult patients to handle the surge.

“If this trend continues, our hospital system capacity will become overwhelmed, leading us to make difficult choices of delaying much-needed non-COVID care to accommodate a greater number of COVID patients,” the group wrote.

The leaders urged residents to stay home when possible, practice social distancing and wear masks.

Stay home.

Houston employers ought to send workers back home from the office if possible due to spiking coronavirus cases in the region, the region’s leading business group said Wednesday.

Bob Harvey, the president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, said in a statement that Houston COVID-19 cases are reaching a “critical point” and that employers need to do their part in helping to curb what he called an “alarming trajectory.”

“We encourage employers to strongly consider returning to a work-from-home model,” Harvey said. “To keep our Houston economy moving forward, we must all do our part.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott asked Texans to voluntarily stay home if possible.

We’re basically back where we were in March and April, with county governments still trying to figure out what to do without clear direction from the state and a complete abdication of responsibility from the White House. The Texas Restaurant Association is calling for a statewide face mask mandate, a thing that is very much necessary now but could have done so much more good a month ago when we were in this mad stupid rush to reopen everything. Imagine if we could have been able to reopen without thousands of people getting sick every day? Too bad, that’s not how it went. What we’re doing now – and what we’re still not doing because Greg Abbott still isn’t doing it – is definitely too late. If we’re very lucky, maybe it won’t be too little. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Oh, the irony.

Visitors from Texas will soon have to quarantine for 14 days if they travel to New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, according to the three states’ governors, who also took aim at Texas’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday.

The move comes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations hit record highs in Texas, surpassing 5,000 new cases in a single day on Tuesday and making the state one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut, all Democrats, held a joint press conference Wednesday to announce the policy, which will affect nine states whose infection rates have met thresholds indicating “significant community spread,” including Texas, Arizona, and Florida, according to reports.

“We need to do things right inside the four walls in our respective states,” Murphy told reporters.

The restriction on Texas travelers marks a notable shift in which states are being flagged nationwide for the most alarming increases of coronavirus cases. Earlier in the pandemic, Texas touted comparatively low hospitalization rates and was pointing the finger at other states where the virus was raging.

In late March, Texas imposed a 14-day quarantine on travelers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, and California – some of the early coronavirus hotspots. The state also mandated quarantines for those driving or flying to Texas from neighboring Louisiana as well as flying from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago. Those orders have since been lifted.

Abbott did not respond to a request for a comment for this story, but that’s all right. We know what he’d have said: He’s “concerned, but not alarmed”. You’re welcome.

Hidalgo issues new mask order

Greg Abbott said we could, so there.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Friday mandating that businesses require customers to wear masks, her latest effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

She and other county leaders increasingly are worried about a surge in COVID-19 cases since Memorial Day, which has resulted in eight straight days of record hospitalizations in Harris County. Hidalgo framed the mask rules as a common-sense complement to social distancing that empowers business to protect patrons.

“The idea is to see this as no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service,” Hidalgo said at a news conference. “It gives people an understanding of what to expect when they go into an establishment.”

Her order hews closely to face-covering rules issued by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff earlier this week and will go into effect Monday. It expires June 30, though Hidalgo hinted she likely would seek an extension.

It requires all customers 10 and older to wear a face covering inside a businesses; employees who work at a business where distancing from others is impossible also are required to wear a mask. Exceptions include eating at a restaurant, pumping gas, visiting a bank or anytime wearing a mask poses a health risk.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner was one of nine executives of Texas cities to sign a letter to Abbott on Tuesday urging the governor to order residents to wear masks or let local leaders do so themselves. Turner said he would direct police to hand out masks instead of tickets, as they had done in April.

Turner praised Hidalgo’s order and noted the troubling rise in cases, including a new batch of 972 infections in Houston alone he announced from the lectern. Most of those were the results of tests conducted June 5 to June 10, he said.

“Toward the end of April and the first couple weeks of May, we flattened the curve and the numbers were headed in the right direction,” Turner said. “Now, the numbers are starting to tick up, and so we’re encouraging people, at the very minimum, to mask up.”

Greater Houston Partnership CEO Bob Harvey joined the leaders to announce that the business community supported the mask rules.

See here and here for the background. Mayor Turner has fully endorsed Judge Hidalgo’s order. Dallas County has done the same. And just to put a little bit of pressure back on Abbott, the Texas Restaurant Association has called for a statewide mask order. I don’t see that happening, as we are all too busy being call on to clap harder, but we’ll see how it goes.

By the way, remember the model that suggested the new case count for COVID-19 could climb from about 200 a day, which it was a month ago, to over 2,000 a day? The good news is that we’re still nowhere close to that. Looking at the Harris County Public Health data, we’re at roughly double where we were in mid-May, which isn’t great but is far from an order of magnitude increase. There is some lag built into these numbers, though, so we’ll need to check back in another two weeks, and then again after that to see if the mask order, which goes into effect on Monday, made a difference. We know it can’t hurt. Stay safe and wear your mask, people.

Day One of reopening

Just a reminder, this is where we started.

Texas reported 50 more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, the most in any one day since the state reported its first deaths in mid-March.

The state also reported it had added more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 to its total of 28,000 — the biggest one-day increase in infections since April 10.

The numbers came out less than 9 hours before Gov. Greg Abbott was set to lift restrictions on many businesses, allowing malls, movie theaters, retail stores and restaurants to begin operating at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Those businesses can only operate at 25 percent of their maximum capacity for the next two weeks under Abbott’s phased re-opening plan. After that, if things are going well, Abbott has said he will increase the limit to 50 percent occupancy.

[…]

“Understand that Texas has either the 3rd or 4th best — meaning lowest — death rate in the United States,” Abbott said in a television interview on KVUE, an ABC affiliate in Austin. “Texas never has had a situation like New York, like California, like Washington, like Louisiana, like New Jersey, like Michigan, like Illinois with deaths. We’ve never had capacity strains on our hospitals like those states.”

But over the last two days, Texas reported more than 90 deaths from the disease, state records show. That number did not include another six deaths from Harris County, according to an independent tally by Hearst Newspapers.

On Wednesday the state reported 42 people had died. In the previous week the total deaths were 25 per day, on average.

Cheerful, I know. To be fair, the total on any one day is not itself that useful – it’s the trend, the rolling average over several days, that really matters. The point here is that we were not on a steady decline to begin with. Looking at the Trib’s chart, we’re still going up. Some of that is because of more testing, though we’re still at a pathetically low level of testing. If we can ever get to an adequate level, maybe then we’ll know how it’s truly going.

In the meantime, just because we can open doesn’t mean we will.

Arrows on the floor show customers which way to walk. Sanitizing stations appear on the walls. Signs advise shoppers to wash their hands.

On the first day that Texas’ stay-at-home order expired and non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen under social distancing protocols, customers, business owners and employees alike braved a new world together — six feet apart and at 25 percent capacity.

Most of Houston’s Galleria Mall, a massive up-scale mall that typically attracts 30 million visitors a year, stood empty. The majority of the mall’s 400 storefronts kept doors locked. Tables and chairs in the food court are missing, since only to-go orders are allowed. Kiosks that normally sell jewelry, perfume and gifts are draped with black cloths.

But lights flickered from some retailers, where masked workers stood anxious as the clock neared 11 a.m., when they would open their doors. Employees went about their business in the minutes leading up to the reopening; at ba$sh, a women’s clothing retailer, workers prepared the store with new inventory, pulling a rolling rack of flower-print dresses for display. Then, a handful of customers began to trickle in.

Mall general manager Kurt Webb said many tenants are anxious to get back to business, but he’s not expecting them to do so all at once.

“Early on, we’re OK with that,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re giving everyone enough space and earning people’s confidence that malls are a place the community can come and feel safe.”

Extra masks and sanitizing wipes are available for shoppers on the mall’s third floor office. But earning consumer confidence back will be a tough sell, particularly in malls. Only about a third of U.S. consumers feel safe going to the store right now, according to a Deloitte survey of consumer behavior.

[…]

Labor advocates and pro-business groups alike largely advised against the re-opening.

The Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group, discouraged Houston companies from returning to the office if possible on the first day that the stay-at-home order had expired in Texas. Bob Harvey, the CEO of the GHP, said in a statement that office-based employees have been able to carry out tasks remotely for some time, and there is, “no need to add fuel to the fire,” when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized the opening as a “premature green light,” if the state does not allow employees to refuse work if their employer does not meet safety standards in the pandemic.

Also not rushing to reopen:

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March deemed churches to be “essential” services and superseded bans on in-person religious gatherings in Harris and other counties, many local congregations opted to stick with online services and follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

A month later, Abbott has cleared the way for churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to resume larger gatherings as part of a plan announced Monday to restart Texas’ economy.

But there is far from a consensus among local religious leaders over whether now is the time to throw open church doors, even with Abbott’s social-distancing recommendations. A group of more than 80 Christian churches across greater Houston has signed a statement saying they would not hold in-person services during May.

“We believe that in-person gatherings for worship that are larger than 50 persons should not take place in April or May. We will not have in-person worship but will continue offering worship online,” said the statement. “In making this decision, we have the unanimous support of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center who strongly recommend these actions for all the faith communities of Greater Houston.”

Since the statement went out on Friday, about 25 more churches have added their signatures, according to Scott Jones, as resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“We can see clearly at this time that resumption of larger group gatherings should not happen in the next six weeks,” the statement reads. “Deciding when to resume in-person worship for larger gatherings should be evaluated as new information about the rate of new cases and the availability of testing is available.”

Not every church leader agrees. Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop for Galveston-Houston, which includes 1.7 million Catholics, announced Wednesday evening that masses would resume this weekend with social distancing.

Second Baptist Church, which counts tens of thousands of Houstonians as members, said it will resume services at its campuses — again with social distancing — on May 9. The church said it may add new services to allow congregants to worship while remaining 6 feet apart.

And then there’s restaurants:

Dozens of Houston restaurants will reopen for dine-in service on Friday, May 1.

This list includes almost exclusively locally owned establishments from across a variety of price points and parts of Houston. That’s not necessarily the case in other parts of Texas; our sister site in Austin declined to publish a similar list of restaurants because “our story would largely consist of mega-chains or restaurant groups based in other cities.”

Those who choose to dine out this weekend will find restaurants to be different places than they were in February. Per regulations from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, diners will not be able to use valet parking. They will be expected to wash their hands upon entering a restaurant. Once seated — at parties no larger than six and at least six feet away from other tables — they’ll find that shared condiment dispensers such as ketchup bottles and salt shakers have been replaced by single-use, disposable items.

Picos has installed plexiglass partitions at the bar and in between some tables to separate both staff from diners and diners from each other. Many restaurants are limiting restroom occupancy to one person at a time, with a staff member monitoring the area to enforce social distancing. Contactless payment via Venmo or another app may be strongly encouraged.

Similarly, most restaurants have not only explicitly endorsed the Texas Restaurant Association’s Texas Restaurant Promise that recommends daily health screening of employees and frequent sanitizing of common areas but have also told CultureMap that their employees will be wearing masks and gloves when they interact with customers. Patrons should also strongly consider face coverings when they’re not eating to help prevent spreading the virus.

While the decision to reopen or patronize a restaurant’s dining room is controversial — one Instagram follower got blocked for a message that simply read “restaurants = death” — many people are ready to dine out. Representatives tell CultureMap that both Tony’s and Steak 48 are mostly booked for both Friday and Saturday, and Federal Grill had no trouble filling its available tables when it reopened last weekend.

I’m not, at least at this point, going to judge any business that felt they needed to reopen, or any person who wanted to patronize them. We are going to have to figure this out one way or another, and maybe at least we’ll get a better handle on how to do this by actually doing it, however risky or ill-advised it may be. I reserve the right to judge the hell out of anyone or any business that doesn’t reel it back in if it becomes clear that’s what we need to do, or who refuse to consider how their actions may affect others. I judge the hell out of these people, for example.

Speaking of which

Gov. Greg Abbott moved Friday to open up parts of the Texas economy, but he continues to get pressure from many Republicans to move faster even as Democrats have warned him to slow down.

Several conservative state legislators began a letter-writing campaign calling on Abbott to reopen other sectors of the economy — notably hair salons, barbershops, and bars.

“It is confusing to Texans that they have been allowed to congregate en masse at grocery stores and other big box stores since this crisis began, yet they are barred from patronizing a local barber shop or salon, for example, where they are served individually by professionals trained in sanitation and where they can social distance from other customers,” State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Thursday.

She’s not alone. Other lawmakers from around the state have been sending in letters as well and taking to social media to prod the governor to open more businesses.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, took to Facebook to post a story about a Dallas salon that tried to open in defiance of Abbott’s orders to remain closed but was later forced to shut down.

“Greg Abbott Respectfully, ENOUGH!!! You are the only one that can STOP this!!! ENOUGH!!!” White wrote.

Abbott has said he, too, wants to see barber shops and hair salons open “as quickly as possible.” In an interview on KSAT in San Antonio on Thursday, he said he’s working with health officials to determine when those businesses can reopen safely. He said in those settings, workers and customers are in such close contact that they have to get the precautions right to prevent a flare-up of coronavirus infections.

“The decisions we make are based upon data as well as input from doctors,” Abbott said.

The hills some people pick to die on, perhaps literally. I do not understand.

Let’s close on a better note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday announced a fourth step to the mitigation plan she unveiled earlier this week to help reopen and restart Houston’s economy.

The mitigation plan announced earlier this week calls for expanding testing, contact tracing and treatment options. The fourth step announced Friday, what Hidalgo called the fourth “T”, is teamwork from residents to continue practice social distancing, wear face coverings and to remain vigilant of the virus, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the stay-at-home order and reopen some businesses.

“We can’t ignore what is right around the corner,” Hidalgo said of a possible resurgence of the virus. “Some see today as a day of celebration…my message to them is not so fast.”

[…]

“Reopening doesn’t mean mission accomplished, it doesn’t mean the virus goes away,” Hidalgo said.

At least someone is keeping her eye on the ball.

Reopening roundup

Judge Hidalgo adjusts to the new status that has ben imposed on us from Austin.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to significantly expand novel coronavirus case tracing, and maintain reserve hospital capacity, to prepare for a potential virus surge as businesses reopen.

Hidalgo outlined the strategy in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision a day earlier to allow restaurants, malls, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen Friday. Harris County’s government will do its best to adjust, the county judge said.

“Frankly, I think containing this virus will be a tall order given the May 1 timeline,” Hidalgo said. “But we’re going to do everything we can, move heaven and earth to make it work.”

The county plans to recruit 300 “contact tracers” to investigate where infected people may have spread the virus and to whom. Epidemiologists will train existing county employees, volunteers and some new hires on how to track the path of a COVID-19 patient.

[…]

With a finite supply of nasal swabs, the judge warned that the county can only handle up to 100 positive cases per day. A spike would jeopardize the supply.

“If we let our foot off the gas right now, the virus will inevitably come back, and it will come back as much force, if not more force, as before,” Hidalgo said.

“For us to be safe, we need to get keep the new cases below 100 new cases a day,” she said.

I don’t know if those 300 contact tracers in Harris County are a part of the one thousand new contact tracers that Greg Abbott promised or if they are in addition to them. That would be a good question to clarify, in case Abbott meant one thing but was happy to let you believe another. In either case, we’re going to need a lot more testing. Far as I can tell, we have a lot more lip service than testing capability, at least at the state level.

Meanwhile, our local czars have their own plans.

Houston’s new recovery czar Marvin Odum says both the city and the county will eventually unveil plans for businesses in the region to reopen in a “gradual” and a “phased” approach, depending on business sectors.

Odum told Houston Public Media it’s important to first understand the risks around those various sectors returning to business

“And then making sure that we’re building — in cooperation with our medical community, and the state, and others — a monitoring program, which would involve testing strategically applied to those groups, contact tracing where necessary, and being able to bring people back to work.”

Odum says that approach is key to simultaneously getting people back to work and keeping them safe.

[…]

“Everything has to be based on data and science before we open up any businesses,” Walle said.

Odum said there will be some segments of the economy where the risks can be managed easier.

“But as you get into sectors that have more human contact — dealing with customers for example — that may require some additional tools,” Odum said.

Walle is State Rep. Armando Walle, the Harris County Recovery Czar. He will be advising Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court as Odum will be advising Mayor Turner and City Council.

And of course, various things that are now allowed to open may yet take their time in doing so. Museums, for instance:

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston isn’t ready to announce any reopening date, citing the need to establish safety precautions and to communicate with city officials.

“Our Return to Work Task Force has been actively working to determine how best to safely reopen the MFAH for our 650 staff and our visitors, but we are just now, along with many others, considering the governor’s statement,” the museum said in a statement. “We have not yet had an opportunity to connect with the mayor’s office and the county’ judge’s office to understand what the local requirements will be, as the report notes is needed.”

The Asia Society is also following a cautious path.

“We are not reopening on May 1,” an Asia Society representative said.

The Holocaust Museum Houston “might open, at the earliest, Memorial Day weekend,” said a representative who spoke with the museum’s CEO, though any opening would need “an ongoing sanitization process” to be put in place.

The Menil and the Houston Museum of Natural Science did not respond by press time. However, the Asia Society representative said all of Houston’s museums, led by the MFAH, are communicating with one another.

Movie theaters:

Movie theater chains across Texas, though, seem fairly unified in their decision-making: there’s no point in reopening early. The Plano-based Cinemark, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and out-of-state chains like AMC and Regal (both of which operate a number of theaters across Texas) all responded to the news that they’re allowed to open as early as this weekend with a resounding, “Nah, not yet.”

There’s a good reason for that, even if theaters, like almost every business that isn’t a supermarket or home improvement store, are hurting amid the shutdown: there’s nothing to watch. Theater chains live and die by the studio release calendar, and studios haven’t released a movie since March 13, with the first new releases not scheduled to debut until mid-July. Theaters may be allowed to open, but they’d be relegated to picking from a slate of repertory releases and indie films that are being simultaneously released on video-on-demand services merely in hopes that they might be able to entice 25 percent of customers to risk contracting the virus in order to watch something they can easily see at home. And while Abbott may have issued an executive order allowing movie theaters to reopen, the ecosystem of the movie business isn’t built around what individual theaters choose to do.

Your various major releases, like Black Widow, which my 13-year-old is gonna demand to see on opening weekend, have either been released on streaming or pushed back into the late summer or fall, when everyone fervently hopes this will be much more behind us. Until then, all the theaters will have to show are oldies and maybe a few small indy films. Good luck with that.

Restaurants are more likely to be available.

No sooner than Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference on reopening the Texas economy had ended, restaurateur Michael Sambrooks was on the phone making calls to servers to come back to work.

Abbott’s announcement Monday that restaurants could reopen Friday for dine-in service at 25 percent of occupancy brings the battered restaurant industry one step closer to resuming traditional operations.

“I’m ready to get 25 percent back to work,” said Sambrooks, owner of Sambrooks Management, whose restaurants include 1751 Sea and Bar, Candente and The Pit Room. “It definitely feels like a step toward getting back to normal. It feels very hopeful to getting open and start serving people again.”

[…]

While resuming dine-in service has been something Houston restaurateurs have been anticipating, 25 percent is nowhere near normal operations, said restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality.

“In any other time, if you were operating at 25 percent, you’re talking about closing your doors,” said Berg, whose restaurants include B&B Butchers & Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s. “Twenty-five percent isn’t a great business model, but it’s something.”

With the glass-half-empty perspective, that means 75 percent fewer guests; 75 percent less revenue, Berg added.

Still, on Monday he found himself busy planning how to order food, train staff and retool restaurants in hopes that some of his stores could be open on May 1.

“There’s no way we can reopen everything at the same time,” Berg said. “It would be like six grand openings again.”

But for someone like Alex Au-Yeung, who owns the 80-something seat Phat Eatery in Katy, having 19 ¾ customers — as he calculates his 25 percent occupancy — is a move toward getting back to full capacity at his Malaysian street food restaurant.

“It won’t be close to normal operations, but we’ll do what we can,” he said, adding that he also will continue curbside pickup and delivery. “I know there are people who would love to go back out to eat.”

What returning to dining out will look like and feel like will mostly be dictated by guidelines the TRA association laid out weeks ago to assure worker and customer safety as the state strives to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The TRA’s measures include health checks for employees prior to each shift; indoor and outdoor seating with safe distancing guidelines; hand sanitizer or washing stations available to customers and employees; sanitizing common areas and surfaces regularly; and sanitizing dining areas after every use. Expect to see disposable menus, waiters wearing face masks and spaced-out seating in dining rooms — many of which may be operating by reservation-only in order to control the 25 percent restriction.

On Monday the TRA emphasized that no restaurant should reopen until it is ready to do so: “Texas restaurants are experts in safety, sanitation and customer satisfaction, and we know that these values will continue to drive their decision making.”

Dallas Eater lists some good reasons why restaurants shouldn’t rush to reopen, including “Many restaurants aren’t big enough for six-foot table spacing”, “There’s no such thing as social distancing in a kitchen”, and “Servers returning to their jobs will be forced to take a serious pay cut as revenues stay low”, among others. It’s a Dallas-specific list, but I daresay it would apply anywhere else.

Look, I wish them all well, I really hope every single restaurant is able to come back from this catastrophe. I don’t think I’m ready to eat in a restaurant yet, and I’m worried these half-measures won’t do much to help them in the interim. I don’t know what the best answer is. Maybe this will work out fine. I sure hope it does. There’s just no way to know.

The local plea to reopen

I have a lot of sympathy, but I don’t think this is a great idea.

A coalition of 350 local businesses is urging Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo to begin May 1 to ease stay-at-home restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, warning many firms cannot survive additional weeks of forced closures.

The impromptu association, calling itself the Houston Coronavirus Business Group, said in identical letters to the leaders Wednesday that a balance must be struck between the medical community’s desire to keep cases and deaths down and the need to limit damage to the economy.

The group said business leaders should have an equal influence in extending restrictions beyond April 30 as doctors, who they said fail to grasp the severe economic damage wrought by the “draconian” stay-at-home order.

“These good folks aren’t business or economic experts, and they don’t see or understand the economic spiral that we are currently experiencing and the human toll a complete shutdown will ravage in terms of lives, mental health, physical wellbeing, crime, poverty, etc.,” the letter states.

The letter is the first organized push by members of the business community against restrictions of movement and commerce since the pandemic reached the Houston area.

The virus is expected to peak in the Houston area in late April or early May, health experts say, calling it a potentially disastrous time to permit residents to again congregate in restaurants, offices and playgrounds.

“The virus will and should dictate when we lift restrictions,” said Baylor College of Medicine CEO Dr. Paul Klotman. “It makes no sense to artificially pick a date based on what we wish to happen.”

Let me say first that however you feel about this effort, I’m glad these guys didn’t resort to crap like this or this. I don’t have a good answer for them. Ideally, the federal government would have fully stepped in to ease the burden on these businesses, but the first round of assistance is already gone, with a lot of it not going to the businesses that needed it the most, and who knows what will come next or when it may come. There are some local efforts to help restaurants, like this one Mayor Turner just launched, which I consider to be a very high priority. But ultimately, until there is sufficiently widespread testing and the ability to track the movements of those who catch the virus, anything we do to loosen restrictions now is just a huge risk. I mean, a much wider pandemic with a much higher death rate isn’t going to be good for anyone’s business, either. I wish there were something more we could do.

Bars and clubs to be closed

Man, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic is going to be huge even if everything goes well.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday ordered all bars and clubs countywide to close for 15 days, the most drastic step local officials have taken to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The order, which takes effect 8 a.m. Tuesday, also limits restaurants to takeout and delivery orders. The city and county leaders acknowledged the edict could force restaurateurs out of business and cost waitstaff, cooks and bartenders their jobs, but said that dreadful outcome is better than an outbreak in which local hospitals are overrun.

While Turner insisted the closures are not akin to a lockdown, Hidalgo urged residents to avoid any unnecessary contact with other people, effectively signaling a temporary end to public life for the county’s 4.7 million residents. She said the Houston area is at a pivotal moment in determining the path of the virus.

“The decisions we make, and you make, to go out in groups or to stay home will very much determine whether people live or die,” Hidalgo said. “Whether we flatten the curve sufficiently to allow our health care workers to address the influx of cases, or whether our health care system, and community at large, are overwhelmed.”

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office will enforce the temporary rules, Hidalgo said. Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said her inspectors will focus on ensuring bar and restaurants comply, and promised to issue citations for repeat offenders.

[…]

The bar closures and restaurant restrictions are “unquestionably going to cause a financial and health calamity for working people,” said Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.

He said he agrees with the move because it is based on recommendations from health experts, but called on all levels of government to take “swift action” to help affected workers.

“In the bar and restaurant sector, we’re talking about low-wage workers, often uninsured, with little savings to weather the health and economic storm,” Khalil said. “And we need to make sure that they are provided for. They’re not responsible for the situation.”

After Dallas County announced similar restrictions Monday, the Texas Restaurant Association projected that up to 500,000 of the roughly 1.4 million employees in the Texas restaurant industry would lose their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to TRA chief revenue officer and spokeswoman Anna Tauzin.

There are some 300,000 restaurant employees in Harris County, though Tauzin said it was not clear how many could lose their job as a result of the restrictions. The job loss projections do not account for related industries, such as food suppliers and truckers, which Tauzin said also would be hit hard by the loss in restaurant demand.

The city’s press release is here. Bar and club owners are despondent, and I can’t blame them. There’s never a good time for this to happen, but for it to close down their places on Saint Patrick’s Day is an even bigger hit to their finances. I can’t even imagine what the scene is going to look like when this is over. The one thing you can do is still order takeout from your favorite restaurants, and buy gift certificates online from any place that sells them. It’s not going to be much, and everyone from the owners to the staff and the suppliers will need help from the federal government, but it’s something.

UPDATE: Austin has followed suit.

UPDATE: Galveston follows suit.

Back to the barbecue battle

Once again, Sid Miller makes us pay attention to something we shouldn’t have to.

Sid Miller

Sid Miller

Texas’ barbecue culture is sacred. But some pitmasters are catching heat from a former rodeo cowboy overseeing the state Department of Agriculture.

Commissioner Sid Miller is slapping fines on their small businesses despite a warning from the attorney general that his reasoning may be illegal. The department issued at least 13 citations to barbecue joints for failing to register their meat scales since September, despite a 2017 state law requiring the commissioner to leave such establishments alone. In a case of unlikely bedfellows, Miller’s commission issued nine scale-related fines to yogurt shops, too.

The department has no plans to stop.

The citations are part of a running feud between restaurant owners and Miller, a white-cowboy-hat-wearing commissioner who made it his mission to ensure the state register all scales that weigh food for customers. But the state’s restaurant association is warning the food fight could land the commissioner in court.

[…]

When you order a quarter-pound of brisket, Miller insists the meat-slinger should set it on a state-registered scale where you can read the weight. Restaurants must also pay a yearly $35 fee for each of their scales. But strictly enforcing the law could force some of Texas’ most storied smokehouses to completely change the layout of their kitchens, incurring huge remodeling costs.

It’s “patently absurd,” said Kenneth Besserman, general counsel for the Texas Restaurant Association. Some pitmasters scrambled to rewrite their menus to serve less specific amounts of meat but found that created confusion for customers, he said.

Besserman and the restaurant lobby quickly convinced the Legislature to rewrite the law, nicknaming their effort the “Barbecue Bill.” Lawmakers in 2017 almost unanimously agreed to exempt scales “exclusively used to weigh food sold for immediate consumption,” largely pertaining to barbecue restaurants, yogurt shops and certain salad bars. The governor was sold.

Nevertheless, Miller persisted. Once the bill became law, Miller used his authority to add three additional words: “on the premises.” That meant any establishment selling food to-go — as the vast majority of barbecue restaurants do — had to follow the scale laws and regulations, essentially undoing the new law.

See here and here for the background. AG Paxton has opined that Miller’s interpretation is out of bounds, and the TRA is threatening to sue. I have expressed my reluctant agreement with Miller on the merits of the 2017 law, but it is the law and a public official’s role is to obey and uphold the law, outside of situations where the law is obviously immoral or unjust. This doesn’t meet that standard, in which case Miller should be lobbying for the law to be changed, or to work to un-elect the legislators who passed it. It’s also fair to point out, as Miller’s Democratic opponent Kim Olson does in the story, that the AG ought to have other priorities than this, as there have been almost no complaints made in recent years about inaccurate barbecue scales. Of course, given the sorts of things Miller tends to do when he has a bit of free time, this is at least not horribly embarrassing. Silver linings, I suppose.

Paxton versus Miller on barbecue

Just embrace the fact that this is the world we live in.

Sid Miller

Sid Miller

A nonbinding opinion issued Monday by Attorney General Ken Paxton continues a battle between lawmakers, restaurants and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller over regulation of scales used to measure food.

Under state law, roughly 17,725 retailers, including grocery store chains, airlines, coffee houses, laundries and brisket purveyors, are required to use scales to measure what they sell to the public. Those scales are also supposed to be registered with the state so inspectors can ensure that they’re not tipped in the seller’s favor.

A law passed during last year’s legislative session, however, carved out exemptions for scales “exclusively used to weigh food sold for immediate consumption,” meaning places such as yogurt shops and barbecue joints won’t have to get their scales registered.

Miller called the law “horse hockey.”

[…]

Miller’s agency, which was charged with verifying the accuracy of the retailers’ scales, decided that businesses would only be exempt from regulation if they weighed foods to be eaten “on the premises.” But the barbecue bill’s authors argued that in determining how to implement the law, Miller’s agency misinterpreted its intent. So Miller asked Paxton for a written opinion.

Paxton sided with the barbecue joints in his opinion Monday, saying Miller’s agency went too far.

See here for the background. As I said before and as I may never say again, I think Miller had the better argument, but at least we know Ken Paxton remains consistent about siding with the moneyed interests whenever the opportunity presents itself. But who cares about any of that? This calls for a song:

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear some brisket calling my name.

Food trucks

The city of San Antonio is preparing to overhaul its regulations of food trucks.

In San Antonio, strict mobile food vending laws make it difficult for food trucks to flourish. Acknowledging the need for change, officials are jump-starting a process to get more moveable feasts on the road.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has ordered a review of existing ordinances and wants staff to develop recommendations for the City Council, a plan Castro embraces.

“San Antonio’s probably been a bit too traditional with respect to food vendors, and other cities have been more creative,” Castro said. “But that will certainly change. The city will review the policy on food vendors. They’ve played a role in a number of cities in enlivening downtown, and they can play that role for San Antonio.”

At the leased Southtown lot, the Newmans’ park would have featured about five trucks hawking the likes of $8 Japanese beef sliders and $5 french fries rendered in duck fat.

But the plan was snagged by a city law that prohibits food trucks parked on commercial property from vending within 300 feet of a restaurant without written, notarized permission from the restaurant. And the owner of any restaurant within that range can change his or her mind at any time.

[…]

Inspired by a fear of ice cream vendors, one law requires mobile food vendors to undergo an FBI background check that can take six weeks to complete. Another prohibits vendors from setting out tables or chairs and playing music.

A fear of ice cream vendors? I know their jingles can drive you a little crazy, but seriously? I’m hard pressed to see the public policy rationale in these regulations. It’s no mystery why San Antonio lags behind here. The case for throwing out a lot of these silly rules is clear – nobody would ever argue that restaurants must be more than 300 feet away from each other, or that their employees must undergo FBI background checks – but any time an industry that has benefited from such anti-competitive regulations sees them come under assault, it tends to push back. It’s not clear yet how that will play out in the River City.

Aware of the city’s shifting stance, officials with the San Antonio Restaurant Association are striking a cautious tone.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” said Yolanda Arellano, executive director of the association. “We don’t want to deny someone from being an entrepreneur. And restaurateurs are the epitome of the American dream. But at the same time you’ve got to be fair. There’s an investment in that mortar, in that brick. And you want it to be safe, too.”

As change stirs, opponents will have to contend with a city looking to the future.

“I hear that there are concerns from existing restaurants,” Sculley said. “But a rising tide lifts all ships.”

And not to put too fine a point on it, consumers will be much better served by a looser market, just as we all would be better served by getting rid of the byzantine regulatory structure around the beer and wine industries. Matt Yglesias has often written that unaccountable local regulations and licensing requirements are the sort of thing that libertarians who often go tilting at federal windmills should spend more time on, and that there’s a lot there for progressives to work with them. I see a lot of merit in this viewpoint.

And how do things look in Houston?

As general counsel of the Texas Restaurant Association, Glen Garey works in downtown Austin. He says the environment has inspired little hostility among food trucks and restaurants.

“There was a great deal of tension when the concept first started to balloon,” Garey said. “I think a lot of that kind of dissipated.”

He added that Houston has seen a different outcome.

An influx of food trucks there led to a health-code crackdown that severely restricts their operations. Trucks with propane can’t go downtown, and no food trucks can park on a street for more than an hour or sell food within 100 feet of any outdoor seating, said Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston’s sustainability director.

She said Houston also is planning to lift restrictions to allow food trucks downtown.

And indeed, a little googling around led me to the August Greater Houston Restaurant Association newsletter, which contains the following:

As you know, the food truck industry is growing rapidly in the Houston area. In addition to the multitude of taco trucks that have long been a part of our community, we are now experiencing “chef-driven” trucks who are rapidly expanding in numbers.

The newer trucks have indicated that current regulations are restraining their ability to conduct business. As a result, the Mayor appointed a Stakeholder committee to discuss their issues and concerns. We have been a part of the task force and all of the many meetings that have been held.

Issues surrounding the mobile food truck business include distance between trucks that are using propane, allowing them to operate in the central business district, allowing trucks to have tables and chairs within 100′ of your restaurant, and more.

We’ll see how that goes.

Banning trans fats

I haven’t really followed the anti-trans fat bill very closely, but if it’s worth a front page headline, it’s worth a mention here.

Lawmakers in coming weeks will consider bills by Houston state Rep. Carol Alvarado and state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that would outlaw restaurant use of certain oils, shortenings and margarines by September 2011.

The oils, which have been treated with hydrogen at high heat to prolong shelf life, were touted as healthful alternatives to butter until doctors found they contributed to cardiovascular and other diseases.

“Texans want to make healthy choices,” Alvarado said Friday. “This has nothing to do with taste. Our restaurants cook with trans fat-free oils, and it doesn’t compromise the flavor at all.”

Glen Garey, general counsel for the 5,000-member Texas Restaurant Association, said his organization “stands arm in arm” with Alvarado on the issue, especially since the bill was altered in committee to allow restaurants more time to comply.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would join California and New York City in banning the restaurant use of oils containing artificial trans fats.

Alvarado’s bill calls for eliminating use of such oils at restaurant chains with 15 or more outlets in Texas by September 2010. The ban would apply to all restaurants by September 2011. Penalties for violations have yet to be determined.

Rep. Alvarado’s bill is HB1523. I’m moderately surprised that there’s no real opposition to this; usually this sort of thing kicks up a big fuss. I guess this is sufficiently mainstream now that a measure like this is seen as inevitable.

One objection I have seen to this comes from EdT on Twitter, in reply to an agreeing Alison Cook, who notes that there’s “MUCH more trans fats in the stuff on the grocery store shelves.” I’d say that’s true, but it’s also a federal matter. Restaurants are something the Lege can regulate, and so here we are.

HB1523 hasn’t had its committee hearing yet, and with a bit more than 8 weeks left in the session it’s hard to say what its prospects are, even with the restauranteurs in its corner. On a related note, Rep. Alvarado has also filed HB1522, which would require chain restaurants to disclose their nutrition information. Given that the best source for this information nowadays is Ken Hoffman’s Drive Thru Gourmet column, I’d say that bill might have the bigger effect.

Another step forward for a statewide smoking ban

The statewide smoking ban proposals picked up the endorsement of the state restaurant association.

On Monday, the Texas Restaurant Association voted to support the measure – one they say would “level the playing field” for establishments across Texas.

“With 28 Texas cities and 24 states now smoke-free, it’s just a win-win for that industry,” said state Rep. Myra Crownover, the Denton Republican carrying the House bill to ban smoking in all the state’s public places.

“What people forget is that for every one person who wants to smoke at a restaurant or bar, there are six or seven people who don’t go to that establishment because they allow it.”

One group unconvinced? Civil libertarians – who say it’s inappropriate for the government to intrude on private property or take away personal freedoms.

They’re joined by the tobacco lobby, which has contributed more than $112,000 to the campaigns of Texas lawmakers in the last two years, according to Dallas Morning News research.

“A restaurant, a bar, is private property, and you the customer have the choice of whether you go in or you don’t,” said Patrick Dixon, chairman of the Texas Libertarian Party. If you’re a nonsmoker, “there are other places that will cater to you.”

All due respect here, but if you’ve got to go to the chair of the Texas Libertarian Party for an anti quote, the pro position is probably in pretty good shape.

The proposed state ban, which is being championed by cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, would outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants and all indoor public places across Texas, including offices, convention centers and bus stations. It would also ban smoking in the bleachers of outdoor sporting or music events, and anywhere within 15 feet of a doorway to a public building.

A statewide smoking ban, which failed in the 2007 legislative session, would supersede less-stringent laws in Texas cities. Smoking would still be permitted in specially marked hotel rooms, private rooms at nursing homes and outdoor patios connected to restaurants or bars.

Depending on circumstances, the patio allowance is either a deal-maker or a deal-breaker for bar and restaurant owners. Some establishments say it’s the only way they’ll be able to retain their smoking customers.

I’ve noted Armstrong’s involvement before. I don’t really have an opinion on the patio allowance provision. It’s fine by me if there is one, but it won’t break my heart if there isn’t.

Gov. Rick Perry said that while he fully understands the health concerns of cigarette smoke, he likes the idea of local control and wants to find a way to walk the line that protects individual rights.

So there’s still the chance of a veto, or a back-alley bill-killing, if the Governor gets a wild hair about it. But overall, the odds of this happening look good.