As several governors prepared to lift pandemic restrictions this week, a conservative Fort Worth suburb went a step further.
Colleyville Mayor Richard Newton became the first in Texas to issue a proclamation allowing churches, retail stores, gyms, salons, massage parlors and restaurants to reopen Friday — with social distancing — ahead of an order by the Texas governor expected next week.
Confusion, frustration and worry followed, encapsulating the debate, uncertainty and hand-wringing playing out across the country.
“Our businesses are panicking. They don’t know what’s going on,” said Laura Hill, mayor of neighboring Southlake.
“You have people coming out saying whose order do we follow?” said Dr. Justin Fairless, a local emergency room doctor who has treated COVID-19 patients and worried about businesses reopening because, “You’ve got people not wearing the masks and following the social distancing guidelines.”
Glen Whitley, the executive officer of surrounding Tarrant County, who has yet to reopen the area, questioned whether the mayor’s order was even legal. A spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office said the mayor’s order wasn’t in line with the governor’s. Gov. Greg Abbott, an advocate of small government, refused to intervene.
Debate erupted online among residents of the leafy city of nearly 27,000, more than half of whom are 65 or older, pitting neighbor against neighbor: Was it safe to reopen?
It’s a calculus that cities across the country will have to make in coming days as numerous states begin to ease outbreak restrictions, including Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
Newton, 71, an electrical engineer, said he decided to reopen the city after eating takeout in his car while staring at patio tables where he believes diners can now eat safely with social distancing.
“Why shouldn’t I be able to sit at that table and eat?” he said by phone from City Hall this week. “Most of the businesses in Colleyville are small, locally owned. It’s the smaller guys that are really getting killed. As long as the data supports it, we want to give them the opportunity.”
The mayor released instructions with his order that businesses that reopen could only serve customers by appointment, one person per 200 square feet excluding employees. Gyms can host private classes of up to 10 people at a time. Restaurants can offer dine-in service if they have a patio or construct one, with distance between tables.
He said city leaders took into account Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, virus tracking by the state and the University of Washington, a model cited by the White House. According to those models, the Colleyville area has reached peak infections with only half of local hospital beds occupied. Tarrant County, with a population of about 2 million, has reported 1,333 infections and 42 deaths, although less than 0.5% of the population has been tested for the virus.
As business owners prepared to reopen, they tried to figure out what added protections they would need.
Chelsea Rose, president of the Colleyville Chamber of Commerce, released instructions to the group’s 436 members and held a Zoom call with some of them and the mayor Wednesday. Stores were reorganizing to allow patrons to pick up purchases curbside. Restaurants were figuring out whether they could still serve alcohol, given state licensing requirements.
“We’re going to see some creative openings, to get that revenue flowing,” Rose said.
At Enigma Salon, stylist Eleanor Thompson was already fielding calls for appointments. Thompson said she planned to disinfect her shop and see clients one at a time while wearing a mask and gloves.
“And we’ll keep the door locked,” she said, to ensure that walk-ins (still allowed under the mayor’s order) wait outside.
Across town, Loveria Caffè was ready to serve five tables of diners on its outdoor patio, but owner Andrea Matteucci was still trying to figure out how to start service safely.
If a large family arrives, can they be seated together at the same small table, he wondered? Do restaurants need to post new social distancing rules? Does the health department need to sign off on them? None of that was addressed in the mayor’s order.
“We are ready with masks for the servers, with shields. But before making a decision we would like to ask more details from the city, because we don’t want any risks for our customers or employees,” Matteucci said. “Everybody needs to better understand what we can do.”
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One of his regular customers, Mark Assaad, wanted to return to the patio there and at neighboring Gloria’s Mexican restaurant.
“You’ve just got to make sure you’re wearing a mask,” Assaad, 49, a civil engineer, said as he stopped at Loveria on Wednesday to pick up takeout veal scallopini.
On Thursday, with restaurant patios still closed, Dana Judd and her friends spread towels on the parking lot in front of Loveria and had a tailgate picnic. A local principal, Judd supported the mayor’s order.
“He’s doing a great job of supporting local businesses,” she said as she ate Mexican takeout from nearby Costa Vida.
Local COVID-19 survivor Shelley Beall also supported the reopening.
“People need to make a living,” said Beall, 62, as she sat with half a dozen friends at a park in front of City Hall on Thursday to celebrate her birthday.
Her friends said they planned to head to local salons for haircuts and pedicures — wearing masks, of course. They were more hesitant about returning to local gyms, worried about how the equipment would be cleaned.
About half of Colleyville residents supported reopening, according to a Facebook poll. Businesses lining the town’s main artery, State Highway 26, are mostly small, family-owned and struggling because of pandemic closures. Some have already laid off workers.
“It’s good they’re reopening because a lot of people are hurting,” said Yvette Briseno, whose real estate office in downtown Colleyville laid off five of eight staff since the pandemic started.
But Colleyville isn’t a remote outpost, and some residents worried that reopening could lead the virus to spread from other neighboring cities or nearby Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Most of the city’s more than two dozen churches did not plan to reopen until the governor issued his order, said Rev. Dave Toney, executive pastor of 6,000-member Compass Christian Church.
“I’m conflicted,” said Karl Meek, 65, a retired financial manager who started the Facebook page Colleyville Citizens for Accountability, where residents have been debating whether to reopen. “We’re not an island. What will you do if infections increase?”
The mayor said that if infections spike, “we will respond to those changes very quickly.”
On Thursday, traffic was busy on Highway 26 as business parking lots started to fill. Local insurance agent Ron Wadley’s friend texted to ask where he should go eat when restaurants reopen. Loveria, Wadley replied — they have the best patio. But would Wadley, 47, join him?
He might. He thought the mayor’s order was reasonable.
“We could start opening things in a measured way and see how it goes,” Wadley said as he arrived for work in the still-empty downtown Thursday.
He’s been social distancing from coworkers during the outbreak. His wife is a pediatrician, and they’ve been monitoring COVID-19 infections. But Wadley said there’s not enough data yet to assess the risk of reopening places like Colleyville.
“It’s a gamble,” he said, and walked into his office.