Restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic. For almost a full year, owners have dealt with loss of revenue, mounting fees from third-party delivery companies, and little in the way of financial relief. Restaurant workers have also become the mask police for their customers, who have been required to wear face coverings since Governor Abbott implemented a statewide mask mandate last July. The lack of consequences for going maskless meant the mandate didn’t have any real teeth; still, restaurant owners who felt it was important to protect their staff and customers by requiring masks could at least point any naysayers to the policy. Starting next Wednesday, that will no longer be the case. Abbott announced in a press conference on Tuesday that he will rescind the mask mandate and allow all businesses to open to 100 percent capacity, effective March 10.
Restaurant workers are gravely affected by this change in policy, so we reached out to barbecue joint owners from around the state for their reactions to the announcement. Most agreed that Abbott acted in haste, with spring break just weeks away. Currently, Texas ranks forty-eighth out of fifty states in per capita vaccine rates, and just 6.8 percent of its population is fully vaccinated thus far. Unlike in many other states, Texas restaurant workers are not being given priority for the vaccine.
The barbecue joint owners react, in their own words:
Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin closed the dining room last March and operates curbside service only.
“We’re definitely not opening up the dining room. Lately we’ve had a few people who are especially confrontational about coronavirus stuff. I would imagine with the mask mandate gone, we’re going to get a lot more of that. The thing that sucks is a restaurant is never going to win that argument. I do feel hopeful, though. I don’t think it’s the right time to remove the mask mandate by any means, but I do think things are getting better. We’re just gonna keep on keeping on.”
Kerry Bexley of Snow’s BBQ in Lexington offers outdoor dining and requires masks to order.
“You just now got everybody in a pretty good habit, and now we change it again and we might have to regroup. We’ll probably open our indoor dining. We’ll keep precautionary measures in place. It’s a little slower serving with the distancing, but I don’t know that we’re just going to drop that. I don’t see us making many changes right now.”
Kris Manning of Smokey Joe’s Bar-B-Que in Dallas allows indoor dining and requires mask-wearing.
“We will more than likely keep [the mask rule] in force. We’ll have to explain to people that it’s not mandatory [statewide], but it’s mandatory here. We have a lot of older customers, and I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable about coming in here. I have my granny and a lot of elders to take care of, and I wouldn’t want people around without masks. It’s not a liability I want to have on my hands. We’re gonna have to put a bigger sign out there now.”
Brent Reaves of Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que in Dallas offers takeout only and requires mask-wearing.
“We didn’t see it coming. I don’t understand, and before spring break? I don’t get it. We aren’t going to change anything next week. We’ve been shut down since March. We haven’t had dining. We’ll keep the mask requirement. Once the governor makes the statement, there’s a group of people that never wanted to wear [masks] in the first place. If you take the stance to keep wearing masks, now you’re putting yourself in the position to potentially lose customers. It creates more conversations for us with guests than we would normally have.”
Derrick Walker of Smoke-A-Holics BBQ in Fort Worth offers takeout only and requires mask-wearing.
“I guess from a business owner’s standpoint, I think it’s time. If the numbers back up his decision, then I’m all for it. I believe the masks should be a personal preference. If you feel the need to cover and protect yourself, then fine. I’m still going to allow only five people inside at one time for takeout. If it’s not a mandate, I’m not going to try and enforce it. I’ll probably still be wearing mine. I haven’t contracted COVID, and I have no desire to contract COVID.”
Stephen Joseph of Riverport Bar-B-Cue in Jefferson allows indoor dining and strongly encourages mask-wearing.
“What has upset me the entire time has been the inconsistency of the message. There has been no united message about what we should be doing. It’s a constantly moving target. I bet the masks come off now. They could be carrying the virus, so there’s a little worry there. I’m a little disappointed, but I try not to complain. We’re going to remain at 75 percent. We’re just too small. It’s too tight in here to go 100 percent. I really have seen an increase of people wearing the mask over the last three or four weeks, but we’ve got spring break coming up next weekend. Nobody’s going to wear a mask, and we’re probably going to see a spike right after that. We’ll just keep pushing and do what we do.”
Wesley Jurena of Pappa Charlies Barbeque in Cypress allows indoor and outdoor dining and requires mask-wearing.
“I don’t know, what does it hurt to wear a mask if you’re in a crowded environment? I’ve been a Republican all my life. I’m a Second Amendment guy and all that stuff, but I want to make sure everybody else is healthy, and I want to do the right thing. If [Abbott] wants to say lift the mandate, then just lift the mandate. Don’t throw that bullet point in there about caring about restaurant workers. I’ve been in this business long enough that I can tell you customers don’t give a shit. The service better be good, the food better be hot, and they want a whole loaf of bread with a quarter pound of brisket.”
Mando Vera of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville offers takeout and requires masks to order.
“I think there’s still a lot of people out there that are scared, especially people who have lost a loved one or those who have survived the virus. I have to respect those people, and the sick, and the elderly, and take care of them as well as anybody else. I’m going to continue requiring masks. Whoever doesn’t want to comply can use the drive-through. I think people are going to do what I ask them to do because I ask them in a good way. I’ve got to take care of my customers. That’s what I’ve been doing through this whole thing, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I think the governor should have waited. This is not going to stop. It’s gonna get worse. I don’t want to play those little games. I’d rather not make more money and have my conscience clear.”
Joshua Guerrero of T-Ghost BBQ in Weslaco serves barbecue from a food truck.
“We worked so hard [to get cases down], and now this. It’s like wrapping a brisket at 130 degrees and saying it’s good enough because the bark is set. It’s frustrating. As much as I hate wearing these stupid things, they do help a lot. I just wish people would push politics aside and wear a mask. It doesn’t take much effort to wear one. We have outdoor seating. All they need to do is a wear a mask for a few minutes until we take their order. We still have the right to enforce the rules we want to. We’re not asking them to wear a hazmat suit.”
Gaylan Marth of Big Boys Bar-B-Que in Sweetwater currently allows indoor dining and requires mask-wearing.
“That stupid SOB. The quickest way to get back to full recovery is to get everybody well. I think it’s scarier now than it was before. If we open it up, we’re going to open up a can of worms again. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s my business and my rules. We’ve lost and gained business because we enforce the mask mandate. We’re fixing to have a double whammy. The Rattlesnake Roundup will start here in a couple weeks. If we don’t have a mask mandate, it’s going to be a free-for-all. We may just go back to carryout only. I don’t have the patience to fight with people. You gotta have a mask if you want barbecue.”