As the Omicron variant began to spread late last year, bar owner Lee Daugherty grew concerned. He started implementing serious protocols among his staff at Alexandre's, his establishment in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas, including bi-weekly testing.
It wasn't long before someone tested positive for COVID-19.
"We flagged a bartender, pre-shift," said Daughtery. "And we started getting word that customers were getting it, and it was basically in the community."
Alexandre's had already closed its doors for more than 400 days during the initial wave of the pandemic. In December, Daughtery found himself once again having to make a tough decision.
"I went to the workers there and said, ‘listen, we need to talk. Our mitigation strategies aren’t working. What do y'all want to do?'" Daughtery said.
The staff came to him with a proposal.
"They said, ‘Listen, you know, scale back New Year’s Eve. We'll do that. But would you mind closing the bar in January, until this wave is projected to be over?' And I accepted their proposal, we got them all placed on paid sick time, and we shut down."
Alexandre's is just one of many Texas restaurants and bars that have been forced to temporarily close — for days, a week, sometimes more — as this latest wave of COVID-19 causes staffing shortages and other challenges.
Emily Williams Knight, the CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, said she has seen this happen at all types of restaurants, from large chains down to smaller establishments. Some have been forced to close one day a week or limit their hours of operation.
"In some cases, they may come in, and maybe that day, they’re fortunate enough to have enough staff, but then they don’t actually get a delivery of supplies, because there’s no one at the delivery company, you know, the supplier to actually get the goods into their restaurant, so they’re forced to close," she added.
Knight said this isn't just a temporary issue. She anticipates the current surge of COVID-19 cases will most likely lead to thousands of Texas restaurants closing their doors for good.
"I think after Delta, many restaurants, and including the Association, really believed that we were heading in the right direction," said Knight, adding that about 9,000 restaurants in the state have already closed permanently since the pandemic began.
"And so, Omicron hitting right at the most critical time, which is through the holidays, coupled with both the labor shortage and the supply chain disruption, I think really has put an almost triple threat on restaurants," she said. "And many of them, unfortunately, aren’t going to make it through."
Knight said her association is currently working with members of Congress to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund to help 12,000 Texas restaurants that applied for the federal grant program last year. The program ran out of money before these businesses could receive any funds.
Still, Knight feels things are starting to turn the corner with Omicron.
Meanwhile, some Texas restaurants and bars have fared better, like Willie's Grill & Icehouse.
"Our sales have actually—you know, knock on wood—have been positive all throughout COVID and even since this latest surge," said Marty Wadsworth, the chain's Vice President of Marketing.
Willie's has more than a dozen locations across Texas — including in the Houston, San Antonio, and Austin areas. Wadsworth said they've been doing well enough so far. The chain just opened its 19th location in Pearland this month.
Wadsworth said he can attribute Willie's success to a number of things including their COVID-19 protocols and deciding to entirely change their service model during the pandemic, which allowed them to retain staff.
"We've actually been really lucky as a brand, no matter the surge, just because our concept has been built on patios, so at least 30% of our footprint are patios, ” said Wadsworth. "Just like any traditional icehouse, we have garage doors in every unit. So when the weather’s nice, we open up those garage doors and our establishment feels like an indoor-outdoor dining area."
KP's Kitchen in Houston is also seeing more positive results, after making similar changes to its service model.
"We moved tables from inside to outside," said Kerry Pauly, who's been in the hospitality industry for more than two decades and opened the restaurant during the pandemic.
"We had one side patio to start off with and then we pulled tables outside in the front area to make more patio seating," Pauly added. "We brought in air purifiers to help with cleaning the air, and I think that that may be some of the reasons why some of our staff and other people didn’t get sick."
Still, Pauly said his restaurant hasn't been without its pandemic hardships .
"We’ve had our struggles with sourcing food and employees, just like every other restaurant in the industry, but it’s worth the struggle seeing the smiles on people’s faces as we serve a quality product," said Pauly. "But, luckily, for us, we've kind of dodged a bullet."