HARLINGEN — After mulling the big step for more than a month, Joe Ayala is ready to reopen his restaurant as part of the push to lift the state’s economic shutdown.

On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott is allowing businesses such restaurants to open at 75-percent customer capacity following the shutdown aimed at limiting exposure to the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Cameron County’s total COVID-19 cases have climbed to about 951, up from about 432 on May 1, when Abbott began allowing businesses to reopen.

Like Ayala, Mayor Chris Boswell urged residents to follow social distancing guidelines, practice good hygiene and wear facial coverings.

“I’m glad to see our businesses are going to continue to expand and try to get back to normal,” Boswell said Wednesday. “We want to be cautious in encouraging everyone to take precautions.”

Boswell pointed to an increase in testing as a key factor.

In Cameron County, while 619 residents had tested positive out of 6,400 — or about 10 percent — on May 18, as of Wednesday afternoon, 951 residents had tested positive out of 15,320 — or about 6 percent, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, hospitalizations dropped from 33 on May 11 to 16 now.

“While it’s true we’ve seen higher numbers and higher community spread, we’re testing more people so more people are testing positive,” Boswell said.

May’s high school and university graduations led to gatherings that helped spike cases, Josh Ramirez, the city’s public health director, said.

“It’s not through the spread of people visiting businesses,” Ramirez said. “Most businesses have been pretty good at protecting their employees and customers. They’ve started real good programs of sanitization.”

New dining area set-up

At Pepe’s Restaurant, Ayala was preparing to reopen his dining area after staying busy dishing out carry-out orders.

“We’re excited,” Ayala said at a table in his popular Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant in Harlingen. “We miss the customers. A lot of people have been calling, ‘When are you going to open?’”

On Wednesday, Manager Mike Herrera was prepping the dining room to comply with Abbott’s order requiring restaurants to make way for six-foot distances between tables.

“We’re taking out chairs and just putting in 75 percent,” Herrera said. “At 75 percent, for us it’s 70 chairs.”

Now, he’s ready to bring back about 90 percent of his staff.

“We’re going to bring back a few to see how it goes,” he said, adding he’s planning to put nearly all his staff back on the payroll.

Customer service

The restaurant’s reopening comes with long lists of requirements, including limiting tables to six guests, screening employees for virus symptoms and strict sanitization measures.

“The world is not the way it used to be,” Herrera said.

In the changing restaurant business, customer service now takes on new forms.

“Sanitation is number-one,” Ayala said. “We’ve got to monitor everything.”

Building guests’ confidence

At Golden Corral, Jose Silva said he’s planning to limit his restaurant’s expansion to about 60 percent.

“We’re going to stay the same or maybe go to 60 percent, because I’ve got to keep a six-foot distance between tables,” he said. “At 75 percent, there are a lot of obligations I can’t fulfill at 6-foot distances for the safety of our guests and employees.”

Silva, who reopened in mid-May at 50-percent dining capacity, is proud about putting nearly all of his employees back on the payroll.

“People need to work,” he said.

At the restaurant, new cafeteria-style serving, with employees dishing up entrees from behind his popular buffet, has his guests coming back.

“Each week our guest counts are higher,” Silva said. “That shows there’s a growing confidence level, with our let-us-serve-you type of service.”