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El Paso restaurants weigh options as Abbott permits partial reopening

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El Paso restaurant owners are taking different approaches to opening their doors on Friday after Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to reopen a select number of Texas businesses even as local COVID-19 case numbers keep rising.

Michael Arvizu, manager of BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in East El Paso, said he’s opening his establishment at 11 a.m. after receiving a mandate from the restaurant’s corporate office in Huntington Beach, Calif.

“We’re opening at 25 percent capacity,” Arvizu said, “and we will continue to do takeout and delivery service.”

Asked whether or not he feels safe in opening up, Arvizu said “I do.”

“We’re taking a tremendous amount of precaution as we have been doing while offering delivery service,” he said. BJ’s will not be providing masks for customers, but Arvizu said “we have been providing masks to our team and we have sanitation practices in place.

“We are still doing social distancing, so our restaurant seats 250 at capacity, which means we’ll only be allowing a minimum of 70 people in at one time.”

At Tio Juan Restaurant in Northeast El Paso, general manager Damaris Gastelum said they will continue to keep their focus on takeout and delivery service … for now.

An empty booth with a “Do Not Sit Here” sign waits for customers at Tio Juan Restaurant. (Joe Rutland/El Paso Matters)

“This is a family-owned restaurant, so my mother, myself and my husband made the decision (to not open for dine-in customers),” Gastelum said. “We’re thinking that we will keep doing this for two more weeks because numbers keep going up and we have a lot of loyal customers who are elderly.”

Gastelum said she’s been staying in touch with restaurant owners in the Northeast area, adding that the ones she has spoken to also plan on waiting two weeks.

“I have mixed feelings,” Edgar Delfin, owner of Lick It Up in Downtown El Paso, said. “Obviously, what’s better for us and what we want is to be open. But I put the health of my employees and our customers first. Up until now, it’s been a priority and it’s still one.”

Delfin said he’s going to keep having people do pick-up orders and delivery service.

Chairs are placed on tables as Tio Juan Restaurant on Thursday as it plans to remain closed for dine-in service. (Joe Rutland/El Paso Matters)

“We don’t have to rush,” he said. “It seems that opening some of these businesses now feels a little rushed. It’s kind of weird that the governor says to reopen but some business owners I’ve talked to don’t feel comfortable doing so.”

Maggie Asfahani, owner of Salt+Honey in Central El Paso, said she has no plans to open her restaurant’s dining room right now.

“We’re just kind of holding back at this time,” Asfahani said on Friday. “We are looking at the possibility of offering curbside service because we have been totally shut down.”

Asfahani said she’s been observing comments among her own friends and contacts on social media and “at least among my general friends, they are not feeling comfortable yet to get out.”

The Piedmont Cafe owner Joey Cazares also has mixed feelings around reopening but decided to keep his dining room closed, saying that “it’s best to wait.”

“I did listen to Abbott’s press conference (on Monday) and I saw the governor say that his decision was informed with the medical community,” Cazares said. “My main concern is that Texas and El Paso rank low for testing.

“Opening up right now would be a boom for business, but with a potential second wave of the coronavirus there could be restrictions put back in place.”

Cazares said he heard Abbott say it was up to restaurant owners whether they wanted to open or not. 

“He said his order supersedes any city orders,” he said. “I think it’s a decision that needs to be more of a community decision. I agree with (U.S. Rep. Veronica) Escobar that we don’t have enough testing in the state. For someone like me, I would not want to be the reason people close to me get infected. But I really want to open my restaurant, too.”

Cover photo: Employees Araceli Nieves, left, and Oscar Chagoya of Tio Juan Restaurant, 10059 Dyer St., take phone orders on Thursday. (Joe Rutland/El Paso Matters)

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Joe Rutland

Joe Rutland is a freelance journalist who lives in El Paso. He's a former assistant city editor with The El Paso Times and has worked for newspapers in Texas and Arizona as a reporter, columnist, and copy editor.

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