For better or worse, Central Texas businesses are starting to open up in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

A few dozen local restaurants have been open to dine-in patrons this week — though at a state-mandated reduced capacity of 25%. Several retail outlets have opened up as well, under the same reduced-capacity guidelines. On Friday, movie theaters, barber shops and salons joined the list of businesses authorized to reopen their doors.

Whether it’s safe or not, the local business scene is starting to get back to normal nearly two months after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the initial shutdown.

Is it too much, too soon? It depends on who you ask. Business owners who have been losing money while closed might argue that it’s worth the risk. The same might go for workers who have been sidelined without a paycheck for the last six to eight weeks.

The big unknown is how local customers will respond to the reopening of these establishments.

Two weeks ago, a Herald online poll asked readers if they would eat at their favorite sit-down restaurant if it were to reopen the next week. More than 400 respondents — 58 percent of the voters — said they would not because the risk of exposure to the virus would be too great.

In this week’s poll, Herald readers were asked if they would wear a protective mask in public, as state and local officials recommend.

Again, the readers’ concerns were evident. More than 69 percent of poll respondents — 388 voters, as of Friday afternoon — said they are already doing so and plan to continue the practice. Another 15 percent — 83 voters — said they would wear a mask in congested public places such as checkout lines and lobby areas. Only 14.5 percent said they would not wear one and about 2 percent were unsure.

Granted, these are unscientific polls, but they clearly show that many local residents are concerned for their personal safety.

That’s a factor that can cut both ways.

On the one hand, it should be gratifying that so many area residents are willing to err on the side of caution and are taking the coronavirus risk seriously.

On the other hand, the public’s overriding caution may indicate that efforts to bring back a sense of normalcy may be easier said than done.

Many of the same people who initially questioned the need to shut down schools, restaurants, businesses and government offices are now rightly questioning the wisdom of opening them all back up before health experts give the all-clear.

A check of the local coronavirus numbers may help to explain their hesitancy to pick back up where things left off in March.

As of Friday, Bell County had recorded 203 cases of COVID-19, up from 178 on May 1. That’s an increase of 25 in seven days, or a little over three new cases per day.

That may not seem too bad in a county with more than 386,000 people, but it’s a bit premature to declare the outbreak is under control.

First of all, the number of new cases is dependent on testing — and Bell County is only now putting a major emphasis on that area. As of Friday, 9,267 tests had been performed countywide, with more than 3,000 tests performed since April 30.

As these latest test results are analyzed, it’s possible that the county will see a spike in the number of confirmed cases. That’s especially true, since the virus can take up to 14 days to incubate.

Because of this long incubation period, someone who tests negative for the virus one week, might test positive the next. In between times, that person may believe it is safe to go to restaurants, stores and other public venues. However, the person who initially tested negative may be asymptomatic and still be contagious, putting others at risk.

In other words, testing helps, but it doesn’t provide a guarantee.

If enough infected but asymptomatic people come into contact with others, the virus can spread rapidly — which is what Abbott and county officials were trying to prevent in closing so many venues to the public in the first place.

Let’s not forget that this is a potentially deadly disease with horrific symptoms in advanced cases.

As of Friday, more than 1.2 million cases had been confirmed in the United States, with more than 70,000 deaths.

Though Central Texas’ totals are relatively low, people travel to this area frequently from other parts of the country and around the world.

In short, the potential for a spike in cases is always with us.

Certainly, reopening local businesses are taking steps to minimize the risk of infection — such as cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, using disposable utensils and menus, and mandating social distancing. But just providing venues for potential public contact increases the odds that the virus will spread.

The only way for customers to ensure they won’t face a potential infection risk is to avoid visiting these businesses — and that’s a decision each individual must make.

As the Central Texas economy gets back up and running, the best way for business owners to bring customers back in while containing the virus is to take every possible precaution mandated by the state and public health officials — and screen customers, if necessary.

These are unprecedented times, and unprecedented measures may be necessary.

For example, store owners should be free to require customers to wear protective masks. So as not to discriminate, they should be willing to provide a mask at no charge, when necessary.

Restaurant managers should have the right to ask customers to leave if they exhibit possible flu symptoms, such as repeated coughing, sneezing or apparent chills and shaking.

In fact, at least one Killeen-area establishment is already following hospital protocols and taking arriving customers’ temperatures with a forehead scanner.

As businesses come back online, the health and safety of customers and employees alike should be the top priority

We all have a responsibility to make this work, and we have an obligation to safeguard our fellow residents’ health, as well as our own.

So, go out to eat, go to the movies, head to your favorite retail store — or wait a little longer, if you’re not comfortable venturing out yet.

Those choices are ours to make — and it’s certainly good to have choices again.

But whatever we choose to do, we must take responsibility for our decisions.

Our community’s economic and physical health are at stake. | 254-501-7543

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