By Matthew Townsend, Andre Tartar, Rachel Adams-Heard and Vanessa Fayzulin
Over Memorial Day weekend, a club in Houston hosted a pool party that looked straight out of spring break, with loads of bulky bare chests, bikinis and day drinking on an umbrella-filled patio during a balmy Saturday.
A day earlier, Texas Governor Greg Abbott allowed bars—along with rodeos, bowling alleys and bingo halls—to open their doors at reduced capacity in the second phase of the state’s plan to restart the economy after shutting down in early April to slow the coronavirus.
The scene at Clé Houston, which quickly spread on social media, played to stereotypes of Texans—libertarian, don’t-tread-on-me types who prize personal freedom. But the reality of how many of the state’s citizens are behaving is much different. In other parts of the city that Saturday, bars were tame, even boring, with sparse attendance and plenty of crowd control. Some owners marked tables and floors with an X to reinforce social distancing. Another set out squeeze bottles filled with hand sanitizer.
South Padre Island, this was not.
A month into the reopening of one of America’s biggest economic engines, Texas looks a lot like those other Houston watering holes: cautiously coming back from the shutdown. Using a variety of data measuring all kinds of activity—from dining out to how frequently people leave their homes—a picture of the Lone Star State emerges that raises doubts about the pace of the economic recovery. For months, the big question has been how quickly Americans will bounce back. Looking at Texas, the answer is that it’s going to be a while.
Concerns erupted a month ago that coronavirus infections could surge after the state eased social-distancing measures—in just one example, prominent Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke called the Republican governor’s plan “dangerous.” And in recent days, there’s been an uptick in reported cases, though the rate of gains over the past seven weeks has been stable at about 1,000 a day. Texans appear to have evolved from a lockdown, which they took less seriously than other states, into a middle ground that hasn’t yet led to new outbreaks.
Restaurants reopened on May 1 at reduced capacity, and so far only about a third of the state’s sit-down dining has returned, according to OpenTable. In major cities, the rebound is even more muted. Transactions at restaurants, including takeout and delivery, have tripled since late March, but are still down 50% from before the pandemic, according to Shift4, a payments processor.
Clark Cooper Concepts operates a handful of high-end eateries in Houston, but one location has remained closed because the staff doesn’t want to risk exposure or would rather collect unemployment for now, according to Grant Cooper, one of the group’s partners. And when more customers do venture out, they’ll encounter a starkly different atmosphere than what they’re used to, he said.
“It’s like a high school mixer where everyone’s awkward,” Cooper said of dining during a pandemic. Even when the state ups capacity limits past the current 50%, he’s not sure how much of a difference that will make since they’ll still have to maintain six feet of distance. Plus, “a lot of people have learned in a short period of time that they have an oven and can cook something at home.”
Tony Goncalves, a 59-year-old from Tomball, about 30 miles north of Houston, has avoided restaurants and a lot of other pursuits because of the hassle of the Covid-19 era, not health concerns.
“I’m not going to a restaurant if I gotta sit there with a mask, you know?” said Goncalves, a project manager for a pipeline company. “I mean, how do you eat? Until it becomes a lot more convenient to do things, then I would just continue doing what I need to.”
A lot of Texans appear to have adopted a similar mentality, either seeking out convenience or necessities. Supercuts has seen visits surge past where they were a year ago, according to foot traffic data on more than 30 standalone locations monitored by SafeGraph, an analytics firm that tracks mobile phones. Traffic to Walmart, which has remained open because it’s deemed an essential retailer for its grocery, is also above 2019.
That’s not to say people aren’t indulging. They’re flooding Whataburger, a drive-thru chain that in March added the ability to deliver its sweet & spicy bacon burger to your parked car. Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q, with more than 30 restaurants in the state, also has a robust pick-up business and its customer traffic drastically rebounded over the past month. Trips to Starbucks and Baskin-Robbins are almost back to normal, according to SafeGraph.
Meanwhile, malls all over the state are struggling to lure back customers. Hotel transactions, including bookings, have only rebounded 37% since hitting a nadir on March 22, according to Shift4.
The earliest that Billy Bob’s, a Fort Worth dance hall that calls itself the world’s largest honky-tonk, might open is June 8 and returning to concerts might be a month after that, according to General Manager Marty Travis. Even at the state-mandated 25% capacity (for now, bars are more restricted than restaurants), the venue could still hold 1,500 people. As added precaution, it’s considering installing thermal cameras to detect fevers in employees and patrons.
“We’re coming up on our 40th anniversary next year, and the last thing I need to do is become a hot spot,” Travis said. “The wise decision was to sit tight for a hot minute.”
Airports are largely empty. At Dallas Fort Worth International, the second largest airport in the country, scheduled daily departures are averaging about 500, roughly half the rate from February, according to tracking website Flightradar24. Offices can reopen, but many haven’t, instead opting to keep their staff working from home.
“We’re not in a rush to come back,” said Stephanie Boone, the 42-year-old founder of Wondercide, a 30-person company that makes pest protection products in Austin for nationwide distribution. “Working remote is working for us.”
During the weekday morning rush last week, a main artery into Dallas looked like a Sunday afternoon. In the city’s downtown, about the only cars on the road were FedEx trucks.
“Economic activity has improved from abysmally low to just drastically low,” said James Gaines, chief economist at Texas A&M University’s Real Estate Center. An index of the state’s economy curated by the school plunged to around 40 earlier this month from 120 in March. In the last week, it’s rebounded to the mid-50s.
Given the state’s diversity, there are regional divides in behavior, even within the same city. In the districts north of Dallas, largely white and affluent, residents are leaving their homes much more than a month ago, according to SafeGraph data. Meanwhile the black communities south of the city, which have been hit hard by the virus, have actually seen reduced mobility since the reopening.
In Austin, a politically-liberal enclave, there are lower levels of movement and business activity. In one sign of the dichotomy, a major mall has only seen a small lift in traffic since the reopening. Meanwhile in Midland, deep within the state’s conservative oil-producing Permian Basin, a big shopping center appears to already be back to normal levels of visitors, according to SafeGraph data.
These differences, of course, come amid President Donald Trump turning virus prevention into a partisan issue, by refusing to wear a mask and criticizing states that have kept economic activity under wraps.
“I definitely see a divide along political lines,” said Matt Asendio, a Houston real estate agent who’s witnessed interest in home buying rebound the past two weeks. “There are people who are out and about and aren’t social distancing like you’d like, and a second group that is staying at home.”
Tara Chapman realized the stark differences just 10 minutes outside Austin at a gas station where social distancing was non-existent. Later during her trip last weekend to the Hill Country, she stopped at a taco shop and the only person wearing a mask besides her and her boyfriend was an employee, and her nose wasn’t covered.
Chapman, 38, runs Two Hives Honey, an eight-person Austin beekeeping company that has survived the pandemic by boosting online sales. The company so far hasn’t brought back group events, like hive tours and classes, that had accounted for a third of revenue.
“Austin is taking it a lot more slowly,” Chapman said. “We just aren’t there yet.”
Methodology: SafeGraph device location data analyzed for this story has been adjusted for geographic sampling bias and for daily fluctuations in number of detected devices, relative to April 1, 2020. A seven-day moving average is used throughout, to control for weekday-vs.-weekend dynamics. The state comparison chart looks at the share of observed devices that hadn’t left their home in a 24-hour window, while the map looks at the share of observed devices that left their home locations as of May 24 compared to April 30, right before Texas began reopening. A device’s home is defined as its common nighttime location over a six-week period.