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When the coronavirus pandemic hit and restaurant owners faced difficult decisions, the Richards family that owns Picos, a Mexican restaurant in Houston, quickly adapted to continue sharing their Latin cuisine — from selling to-go margarita kits to stationing a mariachi band at the curbside pickup.
This week, after Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that he would rescind the statewide mask mandate while the vast majority of residents remain unvaccinated, the tough choice to enforce public health guidance fell to business owners, and Picos announced it would continue requiring masks. But after such a challenging year, the reaction to their decision was disheartening, co-owner Monica Richards said: Several people sent hateful messages through social media and called the restaurant, threatening to report staffers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It was just horrific,” Richards said. “People don’t understand unless you’re in our business what it felt like, how hard it was to go through everything we went through during COVID. For people to be negative toward us for trying to remain safe, so that this doesn’t continue to happen, just makes zero sense to us.”
Abbott’s decision to lift the mandate will make Texas the largest state to not require masks, which has not come easily for many businesses that are navigating enforcement of mask rules to protect employees and customers while facing backlash. Masks, which health experts say are among the most effective ways to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have become a partisan symbol, with one conservative group planning a mask-burning party for Wednesday, the day the order is lifted.
When the mandate is rescinded, the majority of Texas restaurant owners say they will continue requiring staff to wear masks, but they are split on making the same demands of customers, according to the Texas Restaurant Association, which informally surveyed its members this week. The association’s updated guidance recommends restaurants mandate that employees wear masks and encourage guests to do the same, spokesperson Anna Tauzin said.
If a restaurant requires masks, it is unfair to argue the choice infringes on business, Tauzin said.
“This is a decision business owners are making, and it’s right for them,” Tauzin said. “For a group that touts personal responsibility is something key to good stewardship of your business, it seems strange that they might criticize or throw insults at people who are trying to do just that. It’s alarming.”
There have not been many instances reported to the association of harmful fallout for businesses that are continuing to require masks since Abbott’s announcement, such as what Picos faced. Yet restaurants have endured a share of violence and harassment this year as other businesses have remained closed.
Another Houston Mexican restaurant, Cantina Barba, received similar intimidating messages, and staff members have been bullied by some screaming customers who refused to wear masks while it was required statewide, co-owner Steven O’Sullivan said.
“This has been ongoing through COVID,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve had threats of calling ICE. I had one guy just stand there and berate one of my bartenders and tell her ‘you’re an absolute idiot, you don’t know what you’re doing. If you think these masks are going to save your life, you’re stupid,’ blah, blah, blah. Nobody wants to deal with that stuff.”
One employee of Grand Prize Bar had to get stitches in December after he was hit in the head with a glass by a maskless customer he approached, Houston police said.
Reacting to the potential violence that could ensue from confusion or disagreements over mask rules, Houston police Chief Art Acevedo reminded residents this week that businesses have the right to implement their own mandates. Acevedo also encouraged “common decency,” saying in a video that wearing a mask can save lives.
“Forget what the governor says, forget what the law says. What does our own humanity call upon us to do?” he said on MSNBC. “That’s to be cognizant that this is one of the best things we can do, is wear a mask, to keep each other safe.”
Acevedo expressed faith that most Texans will continue to wear masks once the mandate is lifted — a hope shared by Richards. After the threats to her restaurant staff were reported by the Houston Chronicle, she said, a wave of support followed, as people thanked her and her family for keeping people safe. Many customers who reached out told Richards that they favored masks, she said.
“That other side has been wonderful,” she said. “We had a wonderful day yesterday. Our staff was thrilled and thankful.”
But Richards, whose family has served Mexican food in Houston for over three decades, says she has also seen a less predictable — and in this case, a hateful — side of people in the pandemic that she had not before.
“Being Hispanic, and going through that immigration process, and finally receiving your papers, and then for somebody to start threatening you after you’ve been through all that, that’s crazy,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
Disclosure: The Texas Restaurant Association has been a financial supporter 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.