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

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 Governor 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 US 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 27 — A 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 11 — The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is cancelled. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also signs an emergency health declaration in effect for one week.

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

March 13 — Texas Governor 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.

Bars and restaurants close to mitigate spread of coronavirus

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

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

March 18 — Houston 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 $10k 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 19 — Abbott issues an executive order closing bars and restaurants through April 3.

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

March 31 — Abbott 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 Tillman 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’ 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 27 — Harris County implements first masking order.

April 30 — Tillman 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 1 — Restaurants throughout Texas are allowed to reopen at 25% 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 12 — Meat shortages, partly a result of major coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing facilities, hit HEB.

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% capacity. Restaurants can increase to 50% 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 26 — Abbott allows food courts within shopping malls to reopen.

May 26 — Amidst 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 3 — Texas bars are allowed to increase capacity to 50%.

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

June 12 — Texas restaurants are allowed to increase capacity to 75%. Houston. Dallas.

June 19 — Abbott allows amusement parks to reopen at 50% 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 to wear masks, including restaurants.

Gov. Greg Abbott walks back reopening plan

June 22 — As cases surge throughout Texas following the Memorial Day reopening of bars, Gov. 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 25 — Abbott 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% 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 pre-mixed drinks to go as a way to offset the losses incurred from bars being closed to the public.

June 29 — Houston 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 Cle Group, same owners of pool bar Cle, 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% 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%.

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