IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Restaurants are open again in Texas — with some big changes. Is it safe to eat out?

At one Houston restaurant, salt and pepper shakers were replaced with bottles of hand sanitizer. But not every business is taking the same precautions.
Waiter Jason Vernon takes the order of some of the first guests to arrive at the reopening of Coltivare in Houston. "My whole goal was to make them feel comfortable," Vernon said. "I didn't want them to feel out of place."Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

HOUSTON — Like many people in Texas who put their lives on pause in March as the coronavirus pandemic spread, Madeleine Graham had a decision to make last week. For nearly two months, the 26-year-old waitress had been at home, hoping to avoid spreading the virus to her ailing grandmother.

But after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that restaurants and other businesses would be allowed to reopen beginning on May 1, Graham got a call from her manager asking if she was ready to return.

At first, she wasn’t sure how to answer.

“For me it’s been a balance,” Graham said. “I need to make money to live, but I need to do that while being mindful of my family situation and the global situation. Everyone’s going back to work soon, but the number of coronavirus cases is still rising. It’s hard to know the right thing to do.”

After discussing it with her boss and loved ones, Graham decided to give it a shot. On Friday afternoon, for the first time in weeks, she put on a white button-down shirt and blue jeans, the standard work uniform for servers at Coltivare, an acclaimed Italian restaurant on Houston’s northside. She grabbed a colorful cloth mask that her mother’s friend had sewn for her, and she headed to work.

Madeleine Graham organizes takeout tickets. The restaurant cleared out its interior seating to accommodate an increase in takeout orders.Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

It felt like coming out of a haze, she said. She hoped she was making the right call.

As states begin to ease lockdown orders, people who have taken the restrictions seriously now face the same difficult decision that government officials have spent weeks wrestling with: When is it time to return to normal activities, and how can it be done safely? That tension was on display Friday evening as Graham arrived at work.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Coltivare still looked the same from the street, but much had changed since her last shift two months earlier. All of the tables had been moved outside, onto a patio garden, in part because Texas restaurants are still limited to 25 percent capacity for indoor seating, and in part because initial studies suggest that the coronavirus doesn’t survive long in sunlight. Instead of white tablecloths, the tables were covered in brown butcher paper, to be replaced for each new party. And in place of salt and pepper shakers and cloth napkins, workers set out complimentary bottles of hand sanitizer and silverware in vacuum-sealed plastic.

A member of the waitstaff lays out sterilized, plastic-wrapped silverware.Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

“It’s almost surreal,” said Graham, who was assigned to write down takeout orders for customers who wanted a nice meal, but who weren’t ready to sit down at a restaurant. “They’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

Ryan Pera, Coltivare’s chef and co-owner, said he was eager to reopen, despite the risks. Like other restaurants, Coltivare had tried to stay afloat by offering new takeout and delivery options, but Pera said revenues were down 50 to 75 percent the past two months. That’s not sustainable in the long run, he said.

But Pera also knew that some customers and staff would be nervous about coming back, especially given that daily coronavirus case counts have continued to grow in parts of Texas, one of several states that have begun reopening despite not meeting guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC also drafted detailed advice for how to safely reopen restaurants — including suggestions to keep tables spread apart and require staff and patrons to wear masks — but the guidelines were never approved by the White House and were only made public after the draft report was obtained by The Associated Press.

In the absence of federal guidelines, Pera and his team spent days discussing ways they could mitigate risks and put people at ease. He read articles about safety precautions that restaurants in Hong Kong put in place following the SARS outbreak in 2003, and borrowed some of those strategies. He called friends in the industry and bounced ideas off them.

“If we’re going to do this,” Pera recalled telling his team, “then we’re going to do it right.”

Nisha Oza, 48, and her husband, Ted Mellen, 49, were impressed. Initially, Oza, a human resources manager in the oil and gas industry, and Mellen, an IT specialist, had planned to avoid eating out until at least June 1, so they could see whether the end of the lockdown in Texas led to a spike in coronavirus cases. But they were regulars at Coltivare, and after getting a personal invite from the manager last week, with assurances that the restaurant was taking safety seriously, they decided to give it a try.

After making a phone reservation — prior to the pandemic, Coltivare was well-known for refusing to take them — Oza and Mellen were instructed to wait in their car when they arrived. A restaurant staff member texted them when their table was ready, so they could go straight there and avoid bumping into other customers.

Guests wearing masks arrive for the outdoor patio seating.Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

Once seated, a waiter in a cloth mask and plastic gloves arrived and explained that “things are going to be a little bit different.” The waiter would be taking the entire order — drinks, appetizers, dinner — all at once, to avoid additional interactions. After eating, customers were asked to set any empty plates onto a cart next to their table, so workers wouldn't have to lean over them to grab dirty dishes. And anyone who needed to use the restroom would need to be escorted by a waiter, to ensure the bathroom was empty and sanitized.

Oza and Mellen wore masks and gloves when they weren’t eating, though not every customer did so, and Abbott has issued an order prohibiting local governments from requiring people to wear a mask in public. But overall, they said they felt safe at Coltivare.

“It helped that they really went above and beyond,” Mellen said later. “Would I go anywhere? No. That’s the only place we’ve gone out to eat.”

Even with extreme precautions, though, public health officials warn that there are risks associated with eating out, especially in parts of the country where the rate of new coronavirus cases is still growing.

“Eating out and interacting with society is not a risk-free scenario right now,” said Elizabeth Carlton, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. “If you’re in the older population or otherwise high-risk, you should still proceed with caution.”

And some Texas officials warn that not all businesses and customers will go to such lengths to prevent the virus from spreading. Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said the office has heard reports that some Houston restaurant owners have gone in the opposite direction and are prohibiting workers from wearing masks because they worry that such safety precautions will scare away customers.

Hidalgo, who was attacked by state Republican officials for issuing restrictions that they viewed as too severe in the weeks before Abbott’s reopening order, is asking residents to report restaurants and other businesses that are violating safety standards by allowing too many people inside or failing to keep tables 6 feet apart.

“See a restaurant at full capacity? Businesses open that shouldn’t be? Help us save lives. If you see violations of Governor Abbott’s order, please report them,” Hidalgo tweeted last week.

Although cases are still ticking upward, the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t hit Texas nearly as hard as many other places. In a state of about 29 million residents, public health officials have reported fewer than 1,200 deaths among people who tested positive for the virus, giving Abbott and other state officials confidence that people can safely return to work.

Bartender Alexandra Luna mixes cocktails at Coltivare.Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

Ally Fatjo, 30, hopes more restaurants and other businesses find ways to open safely. For more than two months, Fatjo was stuck at home, she said, isolated from friends and family while caring for her newborn son. She wanted to do whatever she could to protect her baby from the virus, especially early on, before evidence emerged that most children are not at high risk of suffering serious illness as a result of the coronavirus.

But last week, when she learned that her favorite restaurant was reopening, she made plans for her mother to watch the baby. She put on makeup for the first time in weeks. Just driving across town with her husband, on the way to Coltivare, was thrilling, she said.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak

She knew going out was a risk, even with masks, gloves and individual bottles of hand sanitizer.

But after weeks cooped up, she was ready.

“I was to the point, I had to get out for my sanity,” Fatjo said. “I knew they were going to be extra safe and cautious. Just being outside, seeing other people and taking a break from the baby, it felt so good.”

Fatjo said she can’t wait until next week. They plan to go again.