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North Central merchants grapple with reopening

COVID-19 forces stores to get creative, do more online

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As North Central businesses slowly start reopening in limited fashion to slow the spread of COVID-19, many merchants are keeping fingers crossed the economy will only improve.

“At some point in time, we have to grab the bull by the horns and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to live with this, it’s not going away,’” said Damien Watel, chef and owner of Bistr09.

On April 27, Gov. Greg Abbott announced restaurant dining rooms, stores, movie theaters, malls and other sites could reopen May 1, as long as they ran at 25 percent capacity. Curbside service, pickup, takeout and third-party delivery remain options if patrons order by phone or online.

By mid-May, capacity was increased to 50 percent by order of the governor.

Nail salons, barbers, hairdressers and gyms returned to service as well, and bars and other establishments serving alcohol invited customers back May 22, but with social distancing and 25 percent capacity.

Sporting events can be held at the end of May, but without fans.

Bistr09, Watel’s reincarnation of Chez Vatel Bistro, welcomed diners once more in early May. Staffers are taking the necessary precautions to keep patrons safe, the owner said.

“From day one we sort of went overboard. … Our motto was, ‘You might get it (COVID-19), but you won’t get it from us,’” Watel said.

The proprietor said eateries already function on small margins, so while a limited opening is hardly ideal, staying shuttered was a death sentence.

“If we stay closed I’m going to lose more staff, I’m going to lose my clientele because people forget, and will I be able to open? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure two more months of this is going to kill a bunch of restaurants,” he added.

More restraints could ease later based on testing and infection rates.

Also rescinded were state-issued, stay-at-home orders, initially announced in late March to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Texas officials then had also ordered the closure of nonessential businesses.

Grocery stores, eateries (but not their dining rooms), auto-repair shops, health care sites, and media outlets were among essential enterprises.

For Meg Sutton, co-owner of Belle & Union, the closures affected her twofold. She owns a stationery and gift shop in the Quarry Village and also a wholesale venture supplying greeting cards and more to other retailers.

“I’ve built this business over the last eight years and to know that something that I have zero control over could take it all away, it’s pretty scary,” Sutton said. “Just got to keep being creative and rely on the community to stay supportive and take it a day at a time.”

When so many mercantile outlets shuttered, she started crunching numbers, researching and filling out paperwork to qualify for government benefits after revenue decreased by half.

Sutton said she worked hard to create a more vigorous online presence for her inventory.

“I know that what I do is not ‘essential.’ It’s essential to me, but you don’t need a greeting card to save your life,” she said. “That being said, I think we need connection now more than ever.”

During the shutdown, Sutton offered curbside pickup, in-store shopping by appointment only and shipping.

Abbott, who personally advocates wearing face masks, said such apparel is no longer mandatory and won’t carry criminal penalties. San Antonio and Bexar County officials have questioned the governor’s decision and urged local shops to continue requiring coverings.

State Attorney General Ken Paxton in May sent a letter to city and county leaders warning them not to issue directives that conflict with state edicts.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease denoting a novel strain of coronavirus, which first appeared in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. The disease spread globally, leading the World Health Organization in March to declare a pandemic.

Shelter-in-place mandates took effect in San Antonio and Bexar County at midnight March 24 and were extended several times; the latest is to June 4. Besides shuttering nonessential businesses, the orders prohibited crowds, recommended folks stay housebound or maintain 6-feet-apart social distancing when outside.

The governor’s decree keeping all schools closed through the spring semester remains intact, with students receiving instruction through distance learning or paper lesson packets. Abbott said summer school, however, can start in June.

Museums were ordered shut March 13, just as many kids launched their Spring Break.

The Witte canceled student field trips due to the virus. President and CEO Marise McDermott said it was heartbreaking, adding the museum has lost $1.6 million.

“Here we were with all this curriculum and ready for all these schoolchildren, and then no kids. Our team immediately went into action and did a bunch of filming and a bunch of creative stuff,” McDermott said.

Staffers created 40 videos called “Witte Where You Are,” filled with information and accessible through facebook.com/wittemuseum.

Members were allowed back on the premises May 27-29, and the public on May 30. McDermott said face coverings are required; all employees are wearing branded masks.

A reopening task force devised safety protocols. Visitors must remain 6 feet away, or the length of a bison (which is also the decal marking the distance on the gallery floors). Patrons also receive a stylus to tap on interactive parts of exhibits, but all hands-on equipment is off limits.

Workers will sanitize every 30 minutes.

“Our relationships with the community are so special. It’s a joyous place,” McDermott said. “I think that’s what’s kept us going. … It’s hard to be in the dark galleries, but there’s going to be light soon.”

The Briscoe Western Art Museum and San Antonio Museum of Art opened to the public May 23 and May 28, respectively. At press time, many other museums remained closed.

Meanwhile, unemployment claims are hitting numbers unseen for decades, officials reported.

Watel served takeout for more than a month at Bistr09 while waiting for government assistance. He ultimately stopped because it hadn’t arrived, and staff was furloughed.

“I don’t think we have a choice. We have to get back to work,” Watel said. “To me, if we had stayed closed for two more months, we were shutting down for sure.”

Both Belle & Union and Bistr09 received rental help from their landlords, but they’re still responsible for those bills.

Businesses looking for financial aid can visit the U.S. Small Business Administration’s website at sba.gov/page/coronavirus-covid-19-small-business-guidance-loan-resources.

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