MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Restaurant owners are cautiously opening their doors again in Texas, but things are not back to normal yet. Restaurants have had to get creative to survive and learn how to protect their customers and their staff. NPR's John Burnett takes us to a Tex-Mex cafe in west Texas.
JERRY MORALES: Good to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good to see you, too.
MORALES: Y'all been doing all right, staying safe?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Jerry Morales is the amiable, animated owner of Gerardo's Casita in Midland, Texas. He greets customers who are just venturing out after seven long weeks of quarantine.
MORALES: Glad to be open; glad to have the dining room back open.
BURNETT: The dining room is classic Tex-Mex decor - sombreros, beer signs and a Mexican flag. But most of the tables have been removed or roped off to create a six-foot buffer between diners. That's what Gov. Greg Abbott ordered earlier this month when he allowed restaurants to open at 25% of their capacity. But that was good enough for Wendy Holland, a Mary Kay beauty consultant. She was digging into a plate of beef tacos with pico de gallo.
WENDY HOLLAND: We did a lot of cooking, and I was pretty good at it. But I'm kind of tired of what I fix (laughter). I'm tired of those things. I'm ready for a little change today.
BURNETT: Morales closed Gerardo's in one world and reopened in another. Across the country, more than 8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed, and the industry has lost at least $80 billion in sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. Now that the Texas governor has allowed restaurants and other businesses to reopen, one doctor here warned we're embarking on a grand experiment in public health. For a restauranteur, it means unimagined challenges.
MORALES: We had to, you know, start being nurses in our restaurants. You've got to look for signs now for temperature, coughing, sneezing, people holding their chest.
BURNETT: All that and they still have to make sure the fajitas come out sizzling. Morales is a popular former mayor of Midland and past president of the Texas Restaurant Association. He's done anything and everything to keep his business alive in the last two months of restaurant hell. First, there was the impromptu store.
MORALES: Oh, we were selling beans and rice. Sugar was a big hot commodity - eggs, milk, bacon, hamburger meat, chicken, cheese, flour, all those things that our customers needed.
BURNETT: When the regular stores ran out of bleach, Gerardo's created its own household sanitizer.
MORALES: And we put a formula together that had soap, bleach and a few other items, put a label on there and called it the corona-killer. So we sold about 400 bottles of that within days.
BURNETT: After the state passed an emergency measure to let restaurants sell alcohol to go, the corona-killer was followed soon after by the corona-rita (ph).
MORALES: And we started selling packages of corona-rita with the margaritas. And so, you know, we were strategizing. We were thinking off on our feet all the time, marketing.
BURNETT: The public reaction to Texas lifting stay-at-home orders has been mixed. Some folks are still hunkering down at home. Others are stretching their legs and tiptoeing back into public life. Jay Reynolds is an oil and gas investor in Midland who came out to lunch at Gerardo's.
JAY REYNOLDS: I don't have any reservations. I believe, you know, if you do what they ask us to do, I feel safe. I feel like I want to get out. I've been at my home, my office. That's all I've done. So I think the virus is serious, but I think you've got to go on with your life.
BURNETT: Gerardo's is still struggling. Jerry Morales is looking anxiously toward Monday, when the governor will decide whether to let restaurants increase their occupancy from 25 to 50%. The proprietor shudders to think what happens if round two of the coronavirus hits next fall.
MORALES: I don't know that restaurants could survive another round. It's so hard and very scary.
BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Midland, Texas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILKY CHANCE SONG, "FEATHERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.