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As small-business owners and managers across Texas went to work Wednesday morning, they faced yet another 2021 headache: deal with losing business from customers who don’t want to wear face masks during the pandemic or from patrons who will only frequent places that require them.
The dilemma was abruptly thrust upon them after Gov. Greg Abbott announced yesterday afternoon that the state will lift its mask mandate and allow all businesses to operate at 100% capacity starting March 10.
Some businesses barely had an opportunity to reopen after last month’s deadly winter storm and power outage crisis before hearing about this massive change to the state’s COVID-19 safety protocols.
“I do feel that we’ll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that’s just part of the environment that we are in now,” said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. “It’s either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don’t wear masks and you piss a couple people off.”
At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott’s announcement because he’s so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.
“By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy,” Ng said. “We don’t deserve that.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, filed legislation last week that would prevent any business entities from being held liable for exposing people to pandemic illnesses. That provision in House Bill 3 is one of Abbott’s top priorities for this year’s legislative session. The governor was joined by Burrows in Lubbock on Tuesday when announcing plans to rescind many coronavirus restrictions against the advice of federal and local health officials.
Health experts are still urging Texans to keep wearing masks as new and more contagious variants of the virus emerge. Hospitalizations continue to decrease after January record highs, but the state is also still averaging more than 200 deaths a day.
Because the state’s mask mandate will officially end next week, mask requirements around the state now largely come down to the decisions made by Texas businesses. Many took to social media to announce their intentions to continue requiring masks, while others have said they feel powerless to enforce a rule without the state’s protection or support.
Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant’s safety requirements.
“This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing,” Ha said.
Still, other business owners emphasized that all they can do right now is try to keep both themselves and their staff healthy and safe. In a pandemic world full of so many unknowns, many are choosing to focus on what they can control.
Kristina Zhao, the owner of Sichuan House in San Antonio, said most of her customers have remained loyal and supportive over the last year, and deciding to maintain a mask mandate would not deter that encouragement.
“From my standpoint, I can’t really worry about upsetting people because we’re trying to make a decision that’s best for our team and for the long-term sustainability of our business,” Zhao said.
Zhao also questioned whether Abbott’s announcement would actually change the current dynamic in Texas. Many grocery stores and other businesses around the state have already faced frequent confrontations with customers who refused to wear masks, and anyone who wants to dine indoors has already had the opportunity to do so, albeit with a mask when they’re not seated and with reduced capacity.
Still, some businesses have already reported backlash from social media users over their decision to keep a mask requirement in place despite the governor’s move yesterday. Jennifer Dobbertin, who runs a restaurant called Best Quality Daughter in San Antonio, said that an “anti-masker crowd” has already established itself in the restaurant’s social media comments.
“If you don’t want to wear a mask, fine, we can respect that,” Dobbertin said. “Please don’t come eat at our establishments, but don’t come to the restaurant and try to fight us on it.”
On Tuesday, H-E-B announced that customers would no longer have to wear a mask starting March 10, in accordance with Abbott’s order, though the chain is encouraging them to still do so. But days later, H-E-B issued a statement that said, "Mask use at our stores will remain." Kroger will still require any employees and customers to wear masks until all grocery workers have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, according to corporate affairs manager April Martin.
Most low-wage workers in Texas, who are often people of color, have not had opportunities to work from home during the pandemic. Front-line workers in industries like health care, building and cleaning services, social services, public transit, grocery and delivery and warehouse work are predominantly women and people of color.
Texans of color have been disproportionately killed by the virus and impacted by its accompanying recession during the last year. Advocates have reported that these communities have also fallen behind in the vaccination efforts. And Black and Hispanic Texans are far more worried about the coronavirus compared to white Texans, according to a Texas Tribune-University of Texas poll released this week.
Ha, from Houston’s Xin Chao, said maintaining the safest and healthiest practices certainly remains worth the small price of rubbing some customers the wrong way.
“There are plenty of people who prefer restaurants continue to follow COVID safety protocols, and these folks will be more likely to frequent and support restaurants like ours,” Ha said. “So we lose some, we’ll win others. That’s fine by me.”
Disclosure: H-E-B and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.