Dallas restaurant owners react to end of statewide mask mandate

As Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday afternoon that he is allowing businesses to open at 100% capacity and ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week, the dining room of Al Biernat’s in Highland Park erupted into cheers. “People were celebrating and happy and they were feeling really good about it. […]

As Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday afternoon that he is allowing businesses to open at 100% capacity and ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week, the dining room of Al Biernat’s in Highland Park erupted into cheers.

“People were celebrating and happy and they were feeling really good about it. Well, most of them,” said owner Al Biernat. “I had a few tables that looked upset, but most tables were actually celebrating the whole thing at lunch today.”

The new executive order allows restaurants and bars, along with every other business in the state of Texas, to open at full capacity for the first time in nearly a year. The order also eliminates the requirement that masks be worn in public.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott delivers a speech  at a Lubbock restaurant, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Coming up on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abbott announced reopening the State of Texas to all businesses. He also wants to end the statewide mask mandate. (video via KXAS Dallas)

Abbott, who held the news conference in the small dining room of Montelongo’s Mexican Restaurant in Lubbock, said businesses can still “limit capacity or implement safety protocols” on their own.

Biernat said he plans to increase capacity at his two restaurants but not to 100%, at least not for now. He will still require employees to wear masks, but he won’t ask guests to wear masks.

“Even though my staff will be masked until we notify them otherwise, I’m not going to stop my customers from coming in with or without a mask,” he said. “I’m trying to be sensitive to everyone. There’s going to be a lot of diplomacy going on for a while and we’re trying to do the right thing. I think whatever we do will be gradual. To change overnight would probably be wrong.”

Airric Heidelberg, owner of Invasions in East Dallas, said he plans to take a different approach and not change anything about how he’s currently running his restaurant. Masks will still be required for employees and guests, and capacity will stay the same, at 75%.

The decision to open all businesses at full capacity and do away with mask requirements is puzzling to Heidelberg, who told us in 2020 that mask enforcement “puts restaurants in a tough position.”

“Coronavirus is still out there. It’s still a thing. So this is a little absurd to me, but I don’t want to get into the politics about it. It’s just crazy,” he said. “I don’t know what’s so special about Texas that we can open up 100%, but I understand money trumps everything in the business world, so I think that’s the main reason behind it. I haven’t even been able to process it.”

Heidelberg said he’s already dealt with his share of customers who refuse to wear masks, and he’s not looking forward to what he will be up against starting next week when masks are no longer required by the state in public.

“I can’t even imagine. I know at the very least I can have my employees be safe and get them proper masks, and I’m going to try my best to ask people to wear masks,” he added.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins conducts a press conference about the COVID-19 vaccine operations with FEMA, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 at Fair Park in Dallas.

In a news conference held after Abbott’s announcement, Kelsey Erickson Streufert, vice president of government and affairs for the Texas Restaurant Association, said guest compliance with restaurants that choose to require masks is “absolutely a concern.”

She said stories circulated early on in the pandemic of restaurant workers being threatened by customers who didn’t want to wear masks, and there is concern that the elimination of the mask mandate will cause a resurgence in those interactions.

“We really just call upon every single Texan to show each other grace and kindness and patience,” she said. “Everyone has strong opinions about the virus and what we need to be doing, but at the end of the day, these are small business owners in many cases with young employees just trying to do the best job they can.”

How restaurants choose to operate with the restrictions lifted should really depend on where in the state they’re located, Streufert added. Operators should take into consideration the case numbers and hospitalizations in their region when determining how to change their own safety protocols.

Doctors look at a lung CT image at a hospital in Xiaogan,China.

Dallas County reported 751 new coronavirus cases Monday, as well as 42 more deaths from COVID-19. County Health Director Phil Huang says people should continue wearing masks in public. “It’s still too early. We’d all love to get back to normal. [But] it’s not the time to relax,” he told Dallas County commissioners.

Jennifer Uygur, who owns and operates Bishop Arts’ Lucia with husband David Uygur, said that they are still trying to process Abbott’s new order but that it won’t at all change how they run their restaurant, which recently reopened after changing locations.

Masks will still be required for employees and guests, social distancing practices will stay in place, and sanitation measures will continue in the small Italian restaurant, which is currently only open for takeout orders.

“Those of us who own businesses, we’d love to be open, don’t get us wrong, but safety has to be the first line for us,” she said. “Hopefully people will want to join us at the restaurant because we are keeping our staff safe.”

For Uygur, it feels premature to take away the mask mandate when the vaccine is still not available to everyone who wants it, including many restaurant workers, and when masks have proved to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus. Restaurant workers are not included in the current phase of the vaccine rollout.

Several restaurants have already posted their plans on their social media pages. Sandwich Hag on Lamar Street, Detour Doughnuts in Frisco and Cattleack Barbeque in Dallas plan to continue requiring employees and guests to wear masks.

Michael Correll, a labor and employment partner in Reed Smith’s Dallas office, sent a statement via email that the changes in the rules “don’t change the reality of COVID-19 in the workplace or the law of workplace liability. The difference now is employers will face more resistance from their workforce as they continue to follow CDC guidance. Employers will also need to rally to better support their customer-facing employees, who may now face more hostile customer reactions to ’voluntary’ safety rules.”

Janice Provost, owner of Parigi in Oak Lawn, said she wishes more emphasis was put on the fact that those who have been vaccinated or have had COVID-19 can still spread the virus.

“I think all of these measures being reversed at one time could be overwhelming, and honestly, I worry about the 4th wave,” she said in a Facebook comment. “I want to get back to normal as much as anyone, but as we have done with each of the phases, I want to do it cautiously, methodically, and responsibly.”


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