On June 16, the state of Texas announced its highest total number of new coronavirus cases to date. It wasn’t particularly surprising news, coming six weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott allowed restaurants to increase their occupancy to 25 percent after a weeks-long shutdown statewide. In recent weeks, restaurants have been allowed to increase their capacity to 75 percent of normal, bars are operating at 50 percent capacity, and more than 96,000 positive COVID-19 cases have been identified in Texas, a number that continues to rise by the thousands on a daily basis.
At the same time, dozens of restaurants across the state are closing their doors as employees — those on the front lines and at the highest risk of getting sick — test positive for the novel coronavirus. These closures — sometimes lasting days, others for weeks — give restaurant owners time to engage in intensive deep-cleaning and potentially revise their health and safety protocols. Some establishments require that exposed employees self-quarantine and are paying for staff to get tested. Over the past week, nearly a dozen Houston restaurants announced temporary closures after employees tested positive. A similar smattering of shutters was seen in Austin and Dallas.
These are only the positive tests and closures we know about. Because at present, the state of Texas, like most other states and cities nationwide, does not legally require a restaurant shut down if an employee has tested positive for COVID-19. Massachusetts has mandated that restaurants must close for at least 24 hours and disinfect the space in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines after a “worker, patron, or vendor” tests positive for COVID-19. But Massachusetts is an outlier: Most states and cities (like Los Angeles and Chicago) offer only “recommendations” and “guidelines” instead of enforceable requirements. In Texas, Abbott’s “Open Texas” plan, which outlines reopening recommendations, is merely a set of guidelines that establishments are “encouraged” to implement, not codified law or enforceable regulations. That leaves closure and testing decisions entirely up to business owners, and that’s a serious problem — for workers and diners.
Restaurants are already expected to meet an extensive set of food safety guidelines, but combatting COVID-19 is not the same as battling foodborne pathogens. We still don’t know enough about how this virus is transmitted, especially in small spaces, or what can conclusively be done to stem its spread, and that makes it difficult for restaurants to implement effective safety measures. It also doesn’t help that many people across the state have refused to participate in social distancing or wear masks in enclosed spaces like restaurants; Abbott’s guidelines do not require restaurant workers to wear masks, either, asking owners to simply “consider having all employees and contractors wear cloth face coverings.”
So it’s no wonder that restaurant employees are getting sick. Right now, restaurants that choose to close after a positive diagnosis among staff are doing it voluntarily, and it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Continuing to expose patrons and workers to a potentially deadly virus is unjustifiable, even if a restaurant is looking at a seriously bleak economic picture. But because there is no government entity keeping an eye on these establishments, the most egregious offenders go unchecked: Without a required level of transparency or legal obligation to protect their employees, these restaurants might be allowing sick workers to prepare food in the kitchen and refusing to allow servers to wear masks. No restaurant wants to be associated with an infectious disease, and without regulation, there’s a pretty massive incentive for restaurants to keep quiet about positive COVID-19 tests among staffers.
In some cases, those staffers have had to publicly advocate on their own behalf. Earlier this year, it took highly publicized union efforts and worker strikes to change the closure policies and safety requirements at many of the country’s major grocery store chains. Like restaurant workers, these employees reported that their employers were slow to inform employees that they may have been exposed to the virus, and slow to close when a fellow worker fell ill. It seems clear that businesses aren’t going to make the decision to protect public health on their own. And in small, independent restaurants, it’s nearly impossible for workers to organize to better their working conditions.
Which is exactly why the decision to close shouldn’t be left up to business owners at all. It’s hard to blame most of these operators for their choice to open, because it often isn’t a choice at all: They’re already in a precarious position considering weeks of shutdown, the costs of adapting to service in the middle of a pandemic, and ever-declining revenues. Right now, their options are either to reopen and keep paying staff while potentially sickening someone, or close the doors entirely and try to outlast the pandemic without bankrupting themselves. But ultimately, when the options are “sickening people with a deadly virus” or “losing money,” the former has to outweigh the latter.
In Texas, though, that’s not how officials see it. Back in March, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick urged grandparents to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the Texas economy. In some cases, the governor has actively stymied large cities like Houston and Dallas in their efforts to slow the virus’s spread, telling local officials that any orders requiring the wearing of face masks or imposing fines on businesses are in conflict with Abbott’s executive orders.
In the interest of public safety, rules like those in place in Massachusetts should be commonplace across the country. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, restaurants should be required to close for at least 24 hours, perhaps longer. They should be required to tell the public if their employees test positive for coronavirus, or if people have been exposed to COVID-19 in their dining room so that those people could be tested or self-quarantine. These establishments should also be required to pay for testing for their employees, along with medical treatment if those workers are sickened on the job. Those requirements should happen in tandem with better national initiatives, including adequate contact tracing, which has shown real promise in combating the coronavirus in places like South Korea.
Republican leaders like Abbott and Patrick have said over and over that the cure cannot be worse than the virus, in an economic sense. But that will be extremely difficult to bleat once these officials are hooked up to ventilators. If thousands of people each day continue to die of the coronavirus, there won’t be anyone to go to these restaurants once the “new normal” is safe. And if places like Texas, where both its largest cities and rural communities have long lacked adequate access to health care, continue to see increased positive cases and the hospitalization of symptomatic patients every single day, it’s not going to be back to normal for a long while.
Protecting the public health is literally the function of government, and it feels a little bit hypocritical for Abbott and Patrick to pretend that the coronavirus crisis isn’t being exacerbated by their insistence on reopening earlier. Considering that this duo is behind some of the most draconian abortion laws in the country throughout their tenure in the Capitol, all under the guise of protecting public health, it’s patently absurd for them to fail to do their jobs right now.
The virus isn’t going anywhere. Every public activity will be at elevated risk until there is a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, and maybe forever. But as the death toll continues to climb, it’s abundantly clear that these losses of life are a failure of governance. It’s time for state and local leaders to step up, and make the bare minimum decision to close these restaurants temporarily in an effort to save lives. Without that, how many people will be sickened — and how many will die — because Texans couldn’t bear the thought of living without their patio margaritas for a few more weeks?