Liberty Hill businesses take unique approaches to reopening


By Rachel Madison

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced some businesses could start reopening as early as Friday, Texans across the state took various approaches to the decision.

Some businesses have decided to open their doors first thing Friday morning, while others are taking a more cautious approach and not opening until next week or even later. Similar reactions have been the case from businesses in Liberty Hill.

Retail stores, restaurants, churches, malls and movie theaters all made the cut to reopen, with some stipulations, mainly that they always must remain at 25 percent or less capacity.

Renee O’Dell, owner of Pep and Punch, said starting Friday, her store will be open regular business hours.

“Our main goal with reopening is to make sure our customers and employees are safe and comfortable, so we will still be providing our shopping platform on social media,” she said. “We are also still going to have curbside pick up. Some people aren’t ready to emerge, and that’s completely okay.”

O’Dell added that she will be monitoring capacity in her store to make sure it doesn’t go over 25 percent, but because her shop is a boutique, she isn’t concerned about that becoming an issue like it might at a big box retailer.

“If we feel like we have enough people in the store, we’ll ask other customers coming in to wait outside for a few minutes,” she said.

Sanitization will also be a top priority, O’Dell said, adding that they will be cleaning door handles, restrooms and countertops often and will reduce the amount of contact with customers during the purchase process at the counter.

Tami Spearman, owner of Simply Home Decor & More, said for now she is going to keep her doors closed until May 5, when she will reopen with regular business hours. Until then, curbside services are still available, and will remain an option even after she opens.

“I will allow customers inside by appointment only so that we can limit the number of people inside and can exercise the safety measures and sterilization procedures we have in place to see what can be done even better once we fully open,” she said. “We will evaluate toward the end of next week to see what feels right moving forward.”

Dental offices are included in the businesses allowed to reopen. Dr. Scot O’Donnell of Liberty Hill Orthodontics said his office will be opening May 4 and will be open five days a week initially to serve the backlog of patients who haven’t been able to get an appointment.

“Based on measures we’ve taken, we feel comfortable reopening,” O’Donnell said. “Some may see it as extreme, but our initial thought is to err on the side of safety and then dial back from there as we see what happens in Texas.”

Specific changes O’Donnell has made to his office include adding an air purifier to the central HVAC system, requiring all employees to wear personal protective equipment, adding barriers and partitions between exam chairs, and limiting the number of people in the office. Office staff will also be screening patients before they enter the office, and the waiting room will be closed temporarily.

“It’s a good idea that the Governor is allowing businesses to move forward, but it puts a heavy responsibility on each individual and what they feel comfortable with,” O’Donnell added. “I’m in favor of reopening and finding creative ways to make businesses safer and help the public feel like we have their best interest in mind.”

Restaurants are also on the list of approved businesses to reopen, and while some in Liberty Hill are opening first thing Friday, including Margarita’s, Hell or High Water Brewing and Liberty Hill Beer Market, others are holding off for now, like Malted Grains.

Michael Biggs, owner and chef at Malted Grains, said COVID-19 has steered him and fellow owner, Melissa Day, to make big changes at their restaurant. They haven’t decided on a specific date that they will reopen for dine-in services, but their overall concept will be changing completely.

“When this all started, we began making family meals, which a lot of customers were happy with,” Biggs said. “It allowed us to produce a lot of food on a limited amount of labor, and it’s kept us in business. We decided to just pull the trigger and change our concept to doing family meals and individual meals to go.”

While the to-go meals will be the focus at Malted Grains, Biggs said he plans on reopening the restaurant eventually for lunch services.

“We’re hoping the community still sees the to-go meals as a convenience even when things get back to normal,” he added. “We will still have tables for dine in, and we also want to look at bringing in local products to give us an upscale market feel.”

Biggs mentioned products like locally roasted coffees, milled flours, ice cream and cured bacon. Malted Grains will be changing its hours to 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday but will still have its weekly bake shop with breads and desserts on Saturdays.

Biggs said part of their decision to hold off on reopening is because he isn’t sure how any restaurant can operate on 25 percent capacity.

“Restaurants as it is run on a very fine margin,” he said. “It takes a lot of labor to get a restaurant up and running. Most restaurants only make 5 to 10 percent per dollar that’s brought in. From a customer standpoint, sitting down in a restaurant knowing you’re not getting the full experience and a server comes to you with a mask on, is kind of shocking, I think.”

While banks have been considered essential businesses throughout the lockdown, their lobbies have been closed to the public. Van Swift, president and CEO of First Texas Bank, said his bank lobbies have been closed for about six weeks.

“It was critical that we stayed open, but we were given some leeway to close our lobbies, which is unheard of,” he said. “This bank is 122 years old, and I don’t know that we’ve ever closed our lobbies.”

Plans to reopen the various branches’ lobbies are underway, Swift said. Locations with less traffic, like Lampasas, may open sooner than locations with more traffic, like Liberty Hill.

“We still aren’t sure when we will open each individual lobby, but we are discussing it this week,” he said. “My guess would be Monday we will reopen some of the lobbies. We have masks and gloves for our employees, and partitions for employees who work with customers.”

While many locations can reopen Friday, others, like salons and gyms, are not part of the order. Gov. Abbott’s plan is to phase these types of businesses in on or around May 18.

Courtney Harrison, owner of Salon 29, said it’s been hard to understand the governor’s justification for not including salons.

“I think he used social distancing as his determining factor, and in our profession, that’s hard to do while doing our jobs adequately,” she said. “However, the way my salon is structured, we are far enough apart that we can work at the same time and be properly distanced. And when it comes to sanitation, we are held to an extremely high standard. We are required to take a four-hour review course on sanitation alone every two years just to renew our licenses.”

Harrison added that the sanitation products used in salons is medical grade, and every surface touched by clients is thoroughly cleaned after their services.

“I understand the social distancing aspect, but as far as how it hurts us financially, most salon workers live paycheck to paycheck because we don’t have 401Ks or retirement accounts to dip into at this time,” Harrison said. “My income was basically pulled out from underneath me.”

Kayla Witbeck, owner of Radiant Salon & Boutique, said she respects the Governor’s decision, but at the same time, she worries about those who work in her salon, because they are all independent contractors with booth rentals, which means they are unable to file for unemployment.

“We have the right to work, and we don’t want to be unemployed or get assistance from the government,” Witbeck said. “We want to be able to take clients, and isn’t that our freedom to do so? If you’re scared of the virus, then that’s your freedom to stay home, but we’re falling through the cracks because there’s no assistance for us.”

Witbeck added that it was frustrating to see that places like malls and museums can open, because they are high traffic areas.

“I think salons should have been considered way before malls,” she said. “People at malls are touching items and shopping, so it’s just confusing. We already had extreme sanitation measures in place before this all happened.”

Maranda Basey, owner of Flock Fitness, said she wasn’t shocked that gyms weren’t included in the first phase of businesses being allowed to reopen.

“I knew we would slowly start opening things back up, and I think it’s good,” she said. “We’ll have to downsize classes and have different restrictions, but I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re going to hopefully open up before the end of May.”

Basey added that she knows gyms can get sweaty and dirty quickly, so she is working on a plan to keep her gym sanitized, make sure people keep a safe distance from each other while working out, and will continue to offer virtual classes, which she started when she was forced to close.

“I know some people won’t feel comfortable coming in, so we’ll do what we can do start slowly getting people back to feeling safe to come in and work out,” she said.