Restaurants adapt as COVID-19 forces continuous changes

By Chase Rogers

HAYS COUNTY – Of all the businesses and occupations greatly affected by state-mandated and local COVID-19 mitigation guidelines since March, the restaurant and service industry may have been hit the hardest, pressuring owners and managers to continuously adapt with no clear end in sight.

This has been true for the industry since Gov. Greg Abbott’s initial executive order closed all businesses deemed nonessential in late March, requiring bars and restaurants to close their indoor spaces and solely provide curbside and delivery services.

A survey administered by Hays County at the time aiming to gauge local businesses’ sustainability in these conditions showed 50% of respondents stated they could survive for only a few weeks. Of those same 552 respondents, 20% said they could last at least one to two months.

“Some of the businesses believe they just don’t have enough wherewithal to sustain themselves through this crisis,” Buda Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director J.R. Gonzales said at the time of the survey. “As a result, businesses have been getting creative. There are some that are doing things they haven’t done before … going online, curbside pickup and other options.”

These challenges, felt statewide, exacerbated the unemployment claims across the state. According to a Texas Tribune analysis of Texas Workforce Commission and U.S. Employment and Training Administration data, around 12.5% of the 3.2 million unemployment claims filed in Texas from March to Aug. 8 came from workers in the accommodation and food services industry – the largest share for any industry in the state.

Some establishments have felt the brunt of logistical and transportation challenges. For example, the availability of meats during the past few months became limited when in the past it could be easily purchased with no hassle.

Early in the pandemic, Abbott issued a waiver allowing restaurants to deliver alcoholic beverages to patrons, including beer, wine and mixed drinks as long as they were accompanied with a food purchase.

Greg Henry, who owns and operates Willie’s Joint in Buda and Papa Jacks in Kyle, said this change helped marginally, but pales in comparison to before when guests could congregate indoors with friends.

“If I was going to get a burger and go home and eat it and have a beer, am I going to have my dollar beer that I got from the store or a four-dollar beer?” Henry said. “We sell a little bit, but it isn’t anywhere near where we would sell when people could have a few drinks and eat regularly indoors – to sit there and talk, enjoy company. It’s just different times.”

More recently, local efforts to support businesses are in motion, including the implementation of a “Taste of Buda” discount card supplied by the Buda Chamber of Commerce. The card, when purchased by restaurant goers and shown at checkout, applies a discount at participating restaurants, food trucks and catering services in Buda from Sept. 14 through Nov. 14.

The city of Wimberley, on the other hand, created an Economic Development Council that aims to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus on businesses and aid in the recovery, replacing its Downtown Improvement Task Force and the Tourism committees.

More broadly across the county, the Emergency Cash Assistance Program fund was designed and passed for small and local businesses by the Hays County Commissioners Court. The county is poised to distribute $600,000, with $100,000 of the monies coming from the city of Kyle, to respondents on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Current restaurant guidelines limit indoor spaces in restaurants to 50% and outdoor venues and restaurants with outdoor venues are able to operate without an outdoor capacity limit. For a list of restaurants to visit, you can view a comprehensive list at the respective city’s chamber of commerce website.

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