Hundreds of Texas Restaurants May Already Be Disobeying New Capacity Rules

In a single day, citizens submitted at least 450 'verifiable reports' of restaurants serving at capacities higher than current safety recommendations.
May 5, 2020, 10:01pm
busy crowded restaurnat
Photo: Getty Images

Last week, Texas governor Greg Abbott confirmed that he would not extend his state's stay-at-home order beyond the end of April. That meant that this past Friday—May 1—restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, malls, and places of worship had official approval to reopen, with some restrictions and social distancing requirements in place.

Any restaurant that reopens is required to follow a list of Minimum Standard Health Protocols, although owners and managers are allowed to put more rigorous safety standards in place for both customers and employees.

At a minimum, though, restaurants must ensure that diners remain at least six feet apart—even while waiting to be seated—and that the total occupancy never exceeds 25 percent of capacity. Some of the other protocols include mandatory face coverings or non-medical face masks for employees, providing a hand-sanitizing station at the entrance, using disposable menus and single-use condiments, and seating no more than six people at one table. (And bars that do not serve food must remain closed, regardless.)

In Harris County, which includes the massive Houston metropolitan area, county judge Lina Hidalgo has extended the countywide stay-at-home order through May 20, and she continues to advocate for wearing face coverings in public. "Reopening doesn't mean mission accomplished, it doesn't mean the virus goes away," she said on Friday.

In a tweet, Hidalgo encouraged citizens to report any businesses that violated the governor's reopening guidelines by submitting an anonymous online form. "See a restaurant at full capacity? Businesses open that shouldn’t be? Help us save lives," she wrote.

The "ReOpen Texas Phase I Violations Form" covers several different transgressions, including any restaurant or retailer that is above 25 percent capacity, "bars not selling food open and operating," and the opening of gyms and other recreational facilities that are not allowed to resume business. According to ABC13, Hidalgo's office received 450 "verifiable reports" on the first day.

But on social media, Hidalgo's form was not well-received. Angry Twitter users called Hidalgo a Nazi, a Stalinist, a fascist, and a communist, although Angry Twitter users love using those words without really knowing what they mean. The 29-year-old judge's mentions were also filled with racist and sexist language. (For additional context, her tweets about the county's flood mitigation efforts and about Star Wars movies received the same grim reception.)

Anger aside, an attorney contacted by KPRC said the form might be legally ineffective. “Due process requires that you literally catch someone in the act and unless some is there with a webcam or their cellphone and they can show that in fact a violation has occurred, I can assure you that there is no way any purported violation, particularly one that’s not reported contemporaneously with contemporaneous proof, is ever going to make it past the ‘why are we doing this’ stage,” Brian Wice told the station.

VICE has reached out to Judge Hidalgo's office to ask how these reports will be investigated, what repercussions violators might face, and how the county will ensure that the reports are accurate; we have not yet received a response.

Over the weekend, Texas reported more than 2,000 additional cases of coronavirus, which was the largest two-day total since the pandemic began. As of Tuesday afternoon, Texas has had 33,369 confirmed cases and 906 deaths.

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