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A COVID-19 Update

LGBTQ Houstonians weigh in on how life has changed for them.

As the world enters its second year of turmoil and tragedy brought on by COVID-19, service nonprofits, performing-arts organizations, and healthcare providers are developing new strategies and platforms to deliver their services. For example, groups like Houston Pride and QFest, and entertainers like the Space Kiddettes have had to quickly pivot to online presentations in order to maintain their audience base. 
And while restaurant and bar owners have been hit especially hard by COVID-19 restrictions, new formats and creative marketing have saved the day for many in that industry. Houstonians Mike Dorsey and his husband, Chih Lin, saw the economic downturn as their chance to quit their corporate jobs and open Dumpling Dudez, a unique EaDo business that was featured in a reality show about “second act” careers.
Several other LGBTQ Houstonians are also busy adapting and even thriving in these uncertain times. OutSmart sat down with seven of these folks to discuss how the pandemic continues to impact their lives and livelihoods.

Levi Rollins, Urban Eats

As the owner of Urban Eats bistro, bar, and market, Levi Rollins works in one of the hardest-hit industries. “Our business plummeted by 50 percent overnight in late March 2020,” he says. “We adapted quickly by offering curbside, to-go, and delivery, but still finished the second quarter of 2020 down by nearly 40 percent.”

Over the summer and fall, the restaurant focused on take-out options, including grab-and-go and prepared meals, charcuterie, cheese, desserts, and beer and wine. With the relaxation of pandemic guidelines and the addition of limited dine-in, “our business has gradually increased, but we’re still running a substantial decrease from pre-pandemic numbers,” Rollins says. “Communication with our customers has been key in our survival.” Urban Eats has boosted its marketing strategy with the addition of a blog, newsletter, and daily social-media posts that have greatly increased engagement with their customers. They also recently launched a Foodie Program, where customers are rewarded for spreading the word about the business on social media. “We’ve also implemented Bundle Meal Packages, making selecting dinner easier for our loyal customers. For $40 you can get a great meal for two or more, including a main dish, two sides, salad, and fresh-baked bread.” Rollins is hopeful that in the second half of 2021, his restaurant can resume dine-in service when the time is right and also maintain the strong takeout business they’ve developed. 

Dr. M. Sandra Scurria, MDVIP 

Medical workers, from hospital janitors to techs, nurses, and doctors, have been on the front lines of this pandemic since the beginning, and they remain the true faces of heroism in the midst of tragedy. “The 2020 pandemic has been stressful, to say the least,” says Dr. Sandra “Sandy” Scurria. “Initially, my business slowed way down, but once we figured out how to do virtual visits, we were up and running.” 

Patients were comfortable with the telemedicine visits, Scurria notes. Once safety guidelines were relaxed, patients started returning to the office. “Overall, my office visits are less than pre-COVID,” she says.

“Most physicians had difficulty with the pandemic,” she adds, noting that some specialties like dermatology had more trouble because they rely on in-person visits and had a harder time going digital.

“Virtual visits really saved the day for me,” Scurria says. “I also took advantage of the Payroll Protection Plan funds from the government, and I was able to keep all of my employees working full time.”

Scurria predicts that telemedicine is here to stay. “My patients really like the ease of visits from home, and I like them, too—especially for follow-up visits and visits not requiring person-to-person interaction,” she says.

“I have been very pleased to be an MDVIP concierge physician during the pandemic,” Scurria says. “I had an easier time managing reduced patient visits, and my patients were very happy to have a physician that they could readily access. My practice model allows me to be more available to my patients, and both my patients and I are grateful for that.”  

Jeremy Fain, Greenwood King Properties

Realtor Jeremy Fain has had a positive experience adapting to the pandemic. “I’m very fortunate to have had the opposite effect than most,” he says. “The pandemic contributed to my best year in the business, and there is no sign of it slowing down any time soon.”

The beginning of 2020 started off strong, he notes, and the housing market is still solid. “People are feeling more comfortable with what is going on, and feel safe starting to resume business as usual. It’s both a blessing and a curse at the same time.”

He explains that some folks have decided not to list their homes for sale because they don’t want people walking through their houses. Interest rates are also at a historic low, causing a surge of buyers to enter the market. “Low inventory plus lots of buyers equals a feeding frenzy,” Fain says. “Great for the sellers with wonderful presentations and pricing, however a bit challenging for buyers who want the good stuff!” 

Despite his concern for his brother Marco, a physician in Houston who has been exposed to COVID on the front lines almost every day, last year was pretty good to Fain. “When times get tough, a lot of people retreat,” he says. “This is when the tough people push through and make their presence known. I have always been a rebel and have gone against the grain. This is one of those times I’m glad I went with my gut and marketed when nobody else was, because it’s times like this when people are reading and checking their mail that they see you.”

Atlantis Narcisse, Save Our Sisters United, Inc.

Save Our Sisters United, Inc. (S.O.S.U.) CEO and founder Atlantis Narcisse created the nonprofit to empower transgender women of color, but she’s pleased that it’s grown beyond that. “The social, political, and economic adversity that 2020 brought upon us has prompted S.O.S.U, Inc., to return to the drawing board to revitalize our areas of service for the well-being of our local Black trans community and trans individuals of color,” she says. 

As a result, the organization not only expanded the ways that it serves the community, but has been providing new support for various groups within the trans community. “S.O.S.U. is one program stronger with the creation of Save Our Sons and Brothers (S.O.S.B.), a program within our organization that is a social network for trans men of color,” Narcisse says. “Another breakthrough is the development of the COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund for food, rent, and bills for trans individuals of color—in both English and Spanish.

“This reflects the spirit of S.O.S.U, a Black, trans-led organization not leaving any other marginalized communities behind during times of hardship,” Narcisse adds, noting that the pandemic just added to the existing hardships of small grassroots organizations and the people they serve. “As a nonprofit, seeking and being awarded grants during a pandemic is an even more competitive and strenuous feat, while the pressure to provide assistance to our target population, trans individuals of color, grows.” Although she doesn’t think life will return to what it was in pre-COVID times, she’s been buoyed by the way the community has pulled together to help each other.

Kennedy “Kent” Loftin, Montrose Center

Kennnedy Loftin has lost friends and family during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he has been very impressed by the strength and resilience of the Montrose Center. “We have not had to lay anyone off, cut salaries, or cut back any programs, except for having to close our meeting spaces. We have increased staff [to help us distribute] more than $2 million in COVID financial assistance [to our clients],” he explains. 

Last March, the Center quickly converted programs to telehealth and made better use of virtual intake forms, Loftin notes. “This was no small task, but I am so proud of the 90-plus staff that worked tirelessly to ensure that our vital services would still be available during the pandemic.” 

What he misses most is face-to-face counseling and wellness sessions, as well as the many fundraising activities. But there are some plusses. “The Center has converted to online intake, teleheath, and lots and lots of Teams and Zoom meetings. The addition of telehealth is allowing us to reach LGBTQ+ community members much farther away and extend our service area to rural communities. We have used this time to do deferred maintenance on our building—upgrading flooring, painting walls, adding sanitizer dispensers, improving restrooms, and deep-cleaning the Center so we will be ready to welcome the community when it is safe to reopen our meeting spaces.”

The Montrose Center’s new Law Harrington Senior Living Center is also welcoming its first handful of seniors into affordable housing. The pandemic has impacted seniors more than almost any other group. “The new LGBTQ-affirming senior center has 112 units and is creating dignified housing for those who built our community,” Loftin says. “LGBTQ+ Houston, we did a thing!”

Harper Watters, Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters was already a social-media star before the pandemic shut down the Wortham Theater Center downtown. “The pandemic has completely halted all of our performances, and really derailed the world of performing arts,” he says. “I rehearse socially distanced from only a few dancers in my company, but I have not interacted and danced with the entire company since mid-March.”

This frustrates Watters, because “there have been entire seasons of TV shows, [including] the recent Super Bowl halftime show, that have all been produced under the same circumstances.” He and the rest of the Houston Ballet team have primarily been holding classes and rehearsals over Zoom. 

“We’re lucky to be working closely now with Methodist Hospital, [so we] have protocols that allow small groups of us to go in person and take classes at the Ballet. But on days when we can’t, and to ensure the material we’re learning for our virtual projects is thoroughly taught, we still utilize Zoom,” he says. “I’ve been so impressed with how we’ve overcome Internet glitches [and music synching problems] that Zoom presents, and still maintained our high-level performance quality.”

The Houston Ballet also began to offer archival videos of performances, and they are now filming for a new digital season. “The result was that new eyes and minds were reached that weren’t local, but love the arts,” Watters notes. “I am a big advocate for filming and sharing work digitally. Visibility is currency.

“We also offered a deeper look into rehearsals, and a behind-the-scenes look at how these projects were created,” he adds. “I’m confident that if these practices are implemented when we return to ‘normal’ circumstances, it will add a whole new layer of intrigue and depth to our world. The best thing to come out of this has been that I’ve really been able to dive into my identity as a queer BIPOC person.”

Frank Yunc, Coda in the Heights

Coda in The Heights is one of those darling home décor shops where you could spend hours ogling and always go home with something. But then the lockdown hit. “We did curbside, but it’s hard if you don’t know what we sell, or have never been in the store,” owner Frank Yunc says. “The biggest problem was being closed. Other than that, we encountered some shipping issues due to closed vendors’ factories, but it was very minimal.” 

Luckily for Yunc, things picked up late last year. “We had record numbers for the holiday season, but not nearly enough to come close to 2019 sales. Right now, we’re stable. It’s a slow time in retail after the new year, but I believe we should be back on track by summer.” 

He also has some important advice to offer folks during COVID-19 times. “Hang in there, and have respect for each other. You never know how difficult some people have it right now. Show support and do what you can to help, or just be an outlet to comfort those who might need it. Simple acts of kindness. Support from the community. We had a lot of folks shopping on 19th Street this season, and we appreciate that beyond words. Shop local, support local. That’s what keeps us here so we can continue to offer unique items you won’t find in the mega malls or big-box stores. Thank you, Houston, you’ve really helped us out.”

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and, among others.
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