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This Houston restaurant can reopen. But the staff isn’t ready to risk it.

Debbie Chen, co-owner of Houston's Shabu House, and Nguyen T. Nguyen, a local artist and photographer, hold sourdough bread and cookies. Chen is helping organize an effort to use donations to feed front-line workers during the pandemic.
Debbie Chen, co-owner of Houston's Shabu House, and Nguyen T. Nguyen, a local artist and photographer, hold sourdough bread and cookies. Chen is helping organize an effort to use donations to feed front-line workers during the pandemic. (Texas Tribune)

Debbie Chen says the conversation with her staff was a short one.

After Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that restaurants, retail establishments and movie theaters could reopen at 25% capacity, Shabu House’s chef simply said, “I’m not working.”

Chen agreed. Then the conversation drifted elsewhere.

“He was like, ‘If one person sneezes, it’s going to spray all over,’” she said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Although the restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown has taken a financial shellacking since Abbott and officials in Harris County ordered restaurants closed for dine-in business, Chen said the risk of coming back right now was too big.

While the restaurant will continue to offer takeout, Chen said that because Shabu House’s team is so small — there are three employees, including Chen — “if any one of us were to come down with [the coronavirus] for a couple of weeks or if several of us came down with it, we really wouldn’t be reopening dine-in for a while.”

She understands the governor’s motivation for wanting to reopen parts of the economy. “People are unemployed, especially a lot of people who didn’t get the Paycheck Protection Program loans,” she said.

Abbott is getting pushback from his party’s right flank to reopen the state more quickly, and his decision means tough choices for restaurant owners, who must decide whether opening their doors is the right call for their employees and clientele.

“For now we’ve decided we’re going to wait and see until the end of the month to reopen dine-in,” she said. “If things look better, maybe we’ll do May 18, but my team isn’t comfortable opening yet. We’re kind of nervous about this peak we’re supposed to hit.”

According to an internal document obtained by The New York Times, President Donald Trump’s administration is predicting a steady rise in the number of deaths from the coronavirus until June 1, when the country might see upwards of 3,000 daily deaths.

The good news for Chen is that she thinks she can afford to remain afloat doing take-out only for at least another few weeks. Shabu House was recently approved for a PPP loan that she thinks will help the restaurant for the time being — and keep her from dipping into her retirement savings to pay next month’s rent.

“It definitely makes me feel a little more comfortable with being able to stay shut through this month,” she said.

Chen said the loan can go toward the restaurant’s rent, utilities and payroll but, under federal guidelines, has to be used within eight weeks.

“So it’s a breather for a couple of months,” Chen said. “Then we’ll see what happens after that.”