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Texas restaurants need more COVID tests as omicron cases jump

Starting Friday, May 22, restaurants in Texas can open at 50 percent capacity and bars at 25 percent.
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Texas restaurant owners are calling on government leaders to prevent a jump in COVID-19 cases amid the omicron surge.

You can read this story in Spanish by clicking here.

While Texas restaurants are reporting business as usual amid a jump in COVID-19 omicron cases, they're calling on state leaders to prevent the situation from worsening.

Dawn Ann Larios is the regional director for the Texas Restaurant Association, which includes San Antonio.

"First and foremost, restaurants are concerned about keeping customers and employees safe. The silver lining at this point in the pandemic is we know what is required to combat the spread of COVID-19... The Texas Restaurant Association calls upon our government to intervene before things get worse for our public health and for our economy. We must expand the availability of COVID-19 testing and our hospital capacity now," a statement from the organization said.

It also encourages restaurants to adopt the Texas Restaurant Promise — the industry’s set of safety protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts. Earlier this year, the delta variant, labor shortages and supply chain disruptions caused restaurants across the state to report less profits in September than the three prior months.

"Now we are in the midst of the holiday season — a critical revenue-generating time for nearly every restaurant — and starting to see cancellations in New York City and Europe. Depressed demand in Texas now will be catastrophic for many local restaurants that have been fighting to rebuild since last year," the TRA statement said.

Only about 35% of the eligible restaurants in Texas that applied for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund received the grant they needed, "leaving over 12,000 local restaurants in the dark," TRA officials said. The organization also requests full funding for the Employee Retention Tax Credit.

Testing

The omicron variant is continuing to spread throughout the Houston area, with the testing positivity rate rising to just over 15%.

The Houston Health Department said on Monday that demand is high at the city's free COVID-19 testing sites – 25 of those locations were open on Monday. Normal hours are set to resume at the city's multi-service center testing sites on Tuesday.

Health department-affiliated testing sites and schedules can be found at houstonhealth.org.

“We are prepared to expand capacity by scaling up operations or opening additional site(s) if high demand continues,” an HHD spokesperson said.

Beginning in January, Houston ISD plans to provide free voluntary testing to all HISD students and staff on participating campuses.

Airport travel and cancellations

At the airport, holiday traffic continues to come and go. The San Antonio International Airport's 13 carriers reported no major cancellations, according to airport spokeswoman Tonya Hope. Masks are required at San Antonio International and all other major airports in the U.S.

Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport had about 80 flights canceled on Saturday, 60 flights canceled on Sunday and around 30 flights canceled Monday, according to Augusto Bernal, a spokesperson for the Houston Airport System. He said no flights have been canceled at William P. Hobby airport as of Monday.

Bernal added that the Houston's airports handle about 1,100 flights per day, so operations haven't been drastically impacted by canceled flights or delays.

"No stranded passengers," Bernal said. "Nothing of that sort."

Houston is expected to have nearly 3.2 million people traveling through both airports from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3, Bernal said. That's 7% lower than Houston’s travel numbers in winter 2019, and a 75% increase from winter 2020.

New Year's event safety

In pre-pandemic years, tens of thousands of residents flocked to downtown San Antonio for the city's official New Year's celebration, Celebrate SA, which includes a massive fireworks show involving the Tower of the Americas, live music and appearances by local elected leaders.

Crowds gather at Hemisfair, La Villita and the Arneson River Theatre to watch the show. Its San Antonio Parks Foundation-sponsored event is back in-person this year and runs from 6 p.m. to midnight New Year's Eve.

Another major event downtown returning to normal is at the Alamodome, where the Alamo Bowl is in-person this year. The game between the No. 14 Oregon Ducks and No. 16 Oklahoma Sooners on Wednesday night is also expected to attract tens of thousands of fans. Kick-off in the 65,000 seat Alamodome is 8:15 p.m. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN.

Major shopping centers were visibly packed the day after Christmas with shoppers looking for bargains or returning and exchanging unwanted gifts.

GO RIO San Antonio River Cruises reported on Monday that its cruises up and down the state's number one tourist attraction, the River Walk, were booked to capacity with tourists and locals and business is back to pre-pandemic levels, despite the arrival of the omicron variant.

Vaccinations

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District is urging area residents to continue following COVID-19 protocols, such as mask wearing and social distancing in large holiday crowds. But the best defense remains vaccinations and boosters, which can reduce serious illness and hospitalizations, including among those with the few breakthrough cases reported.

"So far, Bexar County has only reported seven cases of omicron; however, it is important to note that this is a gross underestimate and give people a false sense of security. Really, how well Bexar County does against the omicron variant is how well we are all vaccinated, said Rudy Arispe, a Metro Health spokesman.

He said Metro Health has seen a spike in new vaccinations because of the arrival of the omicron variant.

"In fact, we're seeing about 400 to 500 people everyday at our Alamodome mass vaccination site and we're seeing about 200 to 300 people at our vaccine mobile clinics," Arispe said.

"Metro Health encourages individuals to please wear masks in crowded spaces or where there are large gatherings, regardless of your vaccination status, especially with the New Year's celebrations coming up. Mask up, vax up, and boost up."

The latest information on COVD-19 testing, where the 20 free testing centers are located, and vaccination sites is available at covid19.sanantonio.gov. The Alamodome is a mass vaccination site Wednesdays through Fridays from noon until 8 p.m. City-operated sites are closed for the holidays, but will resume hours on Jan. 5.

Hospitalizations

One major concern is a possible sharp rise in local hospitalizations among the unvaccinated due to the delta and omicron variants after holiday gatherings.

"It's still a little too early to tell how we will fare in terms of hospitalization rates, but we're hoping that they remain steady, especially if people continue to get vaccinated," Arispe said.

Arispe said that just before the Christmas weekend, 200 people were hospitalized locally with the virus, a rate he called manageable. Arispe remind San Antonians hospital beds are not just needed for COVID-19 patients, but also for other emergencies, such as heart attacks and strokes.

Caroline Love and Jen Rice from Houston Public Media contributed to this story.

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Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian