HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A year after the pandemic shut down the economy in the Houston-area, business owners said there's hope that Governor Greg Abbott's decision to reopen the state will soon bring jobs back.
For the past 21 years, La Cocina in Richmond has served authentic Mexican food.
However, being in business that long almost came to an end during the COVID-19 outbreak.
"We were this close," La Cocina owner Andres Novoa explained. "We were just hanging in there, and we managed to pull through."
Although they persisted through the thick of the pandemic, Novoa said business still isn't the same.
The flow of business could change next week after Gov. Abbott declared an end to the statewide mask mandate. He also ended capacity restrictions, stating businesses can go back to full operations beginning Wednesday.
Novoa hopes the end of the mandate will bring more customers, but he said he's keeping tables distanced and doesn't have plans to remove the mask policy.
"Not just yet," Novoa explained. "The governor did tell us we're 100%, but let's not forget the animal, the virus is still out there."
Keeping customers safe is something the Texas Restaurant Association is advising owners to prioritize. On Thursday, the TRA updated its guidance to owners saying they should continue sanitation practices, require employees to be masked, and ask customers to do the same. It's a promise restaurants leaders hope will get more people out to eat.
Last year, more than 36,000 leisure and hospitality jobs were lost in the Houston area. Additionally, construction lost nearly 25,000 jobs. The industry with the fastest decline in jobs last year was mining and logging, which includes oil and gas.
In all, the Houston area lost 141,300 jobs in 2020. The good news is reopening the businesses last summer and fall brought a lot of jobs back.
"A good two thirds of the jobs were already back in December," Workforce Solutions spokesperson, Michelle Castrow explained. "When we get those new numbers in the next couple of weeks, I am confident we're going to see more of that."
Local economists told ABC13 it could be a could years before our region returns to full employment.
However, there are signs the area is making a comeback. The amount of weekly jobless claims have gone from 77,000 to less than 9,000.
In all, the Texas Workforce Commission said it's processed 7.3 million unemployment claims, which is more than the last five years worth of claims combined.
The number is declining, but it's still hard to reach TWC on the phone. The agency said it received 2.2 million calls last week alone.
At the height of the pandemic, TWC received more than eight million calls in a week. To free lines, the agency added four call centers.
TWC answers calls each day from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. It's also increased the number of people answering calls to 3,389, which includes 1,868 contracted staff.
But it's not enough. Elizabeth Kaufmann spent hours on the phone day-after-day trying to resolve a claim.
"You're sitting there and you're like, I could be applying for a job," Kaufmann recalled. "I could be working out. I could be doing something more productive than sitting on hold."
If you're stuck on the phone, TWC said try its website. Not just to file for unemployment, but get questions answered.
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