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A Timeline of Houston’s Rocky Restaurant Reopening During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Here’s everything that’s happened over these tumultuous last five months

Phat Eatery

It’s been more than five months since the first case of COVID-19 appeared in Texas, in a Fort Bend County resident. Since then, Houston-area bars, restaurants and kitchens have struggled to endure the often conflicting guidelines, changing rules issued by the state, and economic insecurity caused by the global pandemic. From the belated cancellation of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to a backtracking from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that re-closed bars after less than a month, it’s been a tough year for the Bayou City’s food and drink industry.

Because it’s almost impossible to keep up with everything that’s happened in the Houston restaurant scene since the beginning of March, use this comprehensive timeline as a guide to how (and when) the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the city and state.

Texas confirms first COVID-19 case, Chinatown struggles as diners dwindle

February 21 — As the coronavirus spreads through Asia and to coastal U.S. cities, businesses in Houston’s Chinatown begin to suffer. Axelrad, the Midtown bar, encourages diners to eat in Chinatown by offering a free beer to anyone who can show proof of purchase from a Chinatown eatery.

February 27A massive water main break cuts off water to nearly a quarter of Houston, wreaking havoc on the city’s restaurants. Restaurants scramble to meet sanitation guidelines without access to clean water. (Those same restaurants will later scramble to meet COVID-19 sanitation guidelines.) Though unrelated to COVID-19, it’s an early omen that 2020 might not be a great year for the city’s restaurant industry.

March 4 – A Fort Bend man tests positive for COVID-19, becoming the first case in Texas. The man had recently returned from traveling abroad.

March 5 — Mayor Sylvester Turner and State Representative Gene Wu show their support for the Chinatown community by having lunch at Ocean Palace Restaurant.

Houston Rodeo becomes source of city’s first outbreak

March 8 — A Montgomery County man who attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Barbecue Cookoff is admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. He eventually tests positive for coronavirus. The man, who was a Patton Village police officer, had no recent travel history. Officials consider this the first case of community spread in Houston.

Eventually, 19 cases throughout four Houston-area counties will be tied to the same Rodeo Cookoff tent.

March 11The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is cancelled. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also signs an emergency health declaration in effect for one week.

March 12Several other major Houston food events are cancelled, including Southern Smoke Spring and 8th Wonder Brewing’s Celebr8tion.

March 13Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declares a statewide emergency.

March 17 — Texas Health and Human Services confirms the state’s first COVID-19 death, a Matagorda County man in his 90s.

Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo with healthcare workers
Office of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo

Bars and restaurants close to mitigate spread of coronavirus

March 15The Texas Restaurant Association lobbies the state, urging officials to not close restaurants and bars during the pandemic.

March 17Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo orders bars and restaurants to close for 15 days. Restaurants may stay open for delivery, drive-thru, and takeout only. Hidalgo also encourages Houstonians to stay at home and avoid unnecessary outings.

March 18Houston restaurant owners sign an open letter to Sylvester Turner asking for deferred sales tax payments and paid sick leave to help them weather the virus and closures. Meanwhile, an anonymous diner leaves a tip of nearly $10,000 to help Irma’s Southwest Grill in Downtown Houston pay its staff.

March 18 — Restaurants pivot to takeout. Distilleries pivot to hand sanitizer.

March 18 — Abbott signs a waiver allowing restaurants to sell alcohol to go for the first time ever, so long as it is served with food.

March 19Abbott issues an executive order closing bars and restaurants through April 3.

March 24Harris County issues stay-at-home order. That order is later extended through the end of April.

March 31Abbott tells Texans to stay at home except for essential activity.

April 17 — Abbott forms a strike force to help create a plan to reopen Texas, including business leaders, restaurant owners and other Texas dignitaries. Among members of the strike force are Houston billionaire and restaurateur Tilman Fertitta.

April 23 — Defying the state’s orders, Memorial’s Federal Grill reopens a week early for dine-in service. Houston city council member Michael Kubosh, a white man, compares his dining there to Rosa Parks’s protest against Jim Crow laws.

April 26 — Dr. Deborah Birx, of the White House coronavirus task force, points to Houston as one of the early success stories in controlling the coronavirus.

April 27Harris County implements first masking order.

April 30 — Tilman Fertitta turns heads for taking out a $300 million loan at 15 percent interest to keep his 600-plus restaurants and casinos afloat. Previously, Fertitta had furloughed 40,000 of his employees, then referred to the furloughs as a “favor.”

Gov. Greg Abbott’s Reopen Texas plan begins

May 1Restaurants throughout Texas are allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity. Some restaurant owners go to great lengths to meet distancing guidelines.

May 4 — Judge Lina Hidalgo asks the public to report restaurants violating reduced capacity rules.

May 12Meat shortages, partly a result of major coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing facilities, hit H-E-B.

Marchers at the funeral of George Floyd
Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

Bars reopen, police brutality protests begin

May 22 — Just in time for Memorial Day weekend, Abbott allows Texas bars to reopen at 25 percent capacity. Restaurants can increase to 50 percent capacity. Restaurant patios can increase to full capacity so long as distancing guidelines are met.

May 25 — Houston pool bar Clé faces ire on social media for massive Memorial Day pool party in which social distancing is nonexistent.

May 26Abbott allows food courts within shopping malls to reopen.

May 26 — Amid the pandemic, economic insecurity, and other compounding issues, protests break out across the country following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by Minneapolis police. Floyd was originally from Houston, and a Downtown march honoring his life draws more than 60,000 Houstonians. Several local restaurants close in solidarity and to allow their employees to attend the protest.

June 3Texas bars are allowed to increase capacity to 50 percent.

June 3Abbott bans local governments from enforcing face mask orders.

June 12Texas restaurants are allowed to increase capacity to 75 percent.

June 19Abbott allows amusement parks to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

June 22 — Washington Avenue bar Handlebar loses its liquor license for 30 days for refusing to meet reduced-capacity rules.

June 22 — Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo signs an executive order requiring employees and patrons of all businesses, including restaurants, to wear masks.

Gov. Greg Abbott walks back reopening plan

June 22 — As cases surge throughout Texas following the Memorial Day reopening of bars, Abbott holds a press conference in which he says “COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas.” Still, he says, “closing down Texas again will always be the last option.”

June 23 — After early success containing the virus, Houston sees a major surge in cases. U.S. Representative Pete Olson of Sugarland tells Dr. Anthony Fauci that Houston is on track to become one of the worst affected cities in the nation.

June 25Abbott pauses his Reopen Texas plan.

June 26 — Just a day after pausing the Reopen Texas plan, Abbott forces Texas bars to close again, and restaurants to drop to 50 percent capacity.

June 26 — Hamstrung by state government, Lina Hidalgo urges Houstonians to stay home, but is unable to issue a mandatory order.

June 28 — Abbott issues a special waiver that allows Texas bars to sell premixed drinks to go as a way to offset the losses incurred from bars being closed to the public.

June 29Houston nightclub Spire faces criticism on social media and from other bar owners for hosting crowds over the weekend even as bars were required to close. Spire is owned by Clé Group, same owners of pool bar Clé, which faced similar criticism over Memorial Day weekend.

June 29 — Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner adds three bars to a “Wall of Shame”: Spire, Prospect Park, and Pour Behavior. The Wall of Shame is merely a slap on the hand, since state restrictions prevent Turner from effectively punishing businesses that don’t follow the rules.

July 2 — After initial resistance to counties doing the same, Abbott establishes a statewide face-covering requirement.

Where Houston stands now

August 13 — Gov. Greg Abbott says that COVID-19 cases must drop dramatically before bars can reopen. Abbott wants the state’s positivity level to be at or below 10 percent for a sustained period of time, and for hospitalizations to decrease, before resuming his Open Texas plan. Cases in Texas appear to be plateauing, but the positivity rate is still around 25 percent.

September 21 — Citing decreased hospitalization rates, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that restaurants throughout most of Texas can increase capacity to 75 percent. However, he says, “Because bars are nationally recognized as COVID spreading locations, they are still not able to open at this time.”

October 7 — Gov Greg Abbott announces that bars in most of Texas can reopen at 50% capacity, but says county governments must “opt in” to the reopening. In a statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo says she will not opt in, and that bars in Houston will stay closed for the time being. “Indoor, maskless gathering should not be taking place right now,” she says.

December 21 — After COVID-19 hospitalizations in several Southeast Texas counties, including Brazoria and Galveston counties, rose to more than 15 percent for more than seven days, the Texas Department of Heath and Human Services sent a letter to those counties requiring restaurants to decrease indoor capacity to 50 percent, and bars to close all indoor service. Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said he had no intention of enforcing the state’s newest guidelines. Meanwhile, bars in Harris County remained closed.

January 5 — As Houston reached at least seven consecutive days of COVID-19 hospitalizations over 15% of total capacity, Judge Lina Hidalgo urges residents to avoid dining indoors. “This is not an academic exercise, she said. “What we need to recognize is that without community action that’s going to change the trajectory, we’re going to find ourselves in a very difficult situation.” That same day, the hospitalization metric triggered an automatic rollback of indoor dining capacity in Harris County and surrounding areas, from 75 percent to 50 percent.

February 3 — After initially postponing the 2021 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo until May, officials announced that the rodeo was officially cancelled for this year. The 2020 Rodeo Cookout was linked to some of the first Covid-19 cases in the Houston area.

February 15 — On President’s Day, a massive once-in-a-generation winter storm dropped snow and ice throughout the Lone Star State. Residents and restaurants in the Houston area faced busted pipes, loss of electricity and other challenges, even as the pandemic continued. Restaurants in the area that did have power worked to distribute thousands of free meals, celebs and politicians raised massive donations for Houston organizations, and mutual aid groups filled in the gaps where the government couldn’t, or wouldn’t. See more coverage of the winter storms here.

March 2 — At a press conference that took place at a Lubbock Mexican restaurant, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he was reopening the state “100 percent” and completely rescinding the statewide mask mandate. Restaurants in Houston will be allowed to return to 100 percent capacity on March 10, and bars will also be allowed to fully reopen. The move comes even as more contagious variants of the disease have been discovered in Texas, promoting medical experts to warn against premature reopening.

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