As the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus surged this summer, Texans dug through their dresser drawers and glove compartments to find those discarded masks—or they didn’t. In the past few months, the divide between pro- and anti-maskers has become even more entrenched and political, and the emotions are playing out vociferously in the hospitality industry. Nineteen months into a pandemic, when many of us have long since resumed activities such as dining out, it’s easy to forget that restaurant and bar workers still find themselves on the front lines.
In the first phase of the pandemic, workers could point their customers to a statewide mask mandate. That ended in March 2021. A few months later, on July 29, Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order that allows private businesses, including restaurants and bars, to set their own mask rules, while forbidding cities and other governmental entities from enforcing mandates. Restaurateurs and staffers were on their own.
Texas Monthly asked a half dozen restaurant owners and managers how they and their staffs are faring. No matter what mask policy they have adopted, all are worried for the health of their workers and feel their servers have been turned into de facto police, but without any actual law enforcement to back them up—unless, of course, a disagreement gets heated. And nobody wants that.
Jon Alexis, owner of TJ’s Seafood Market, Dallas, and Malibu Poke, Dallas and Austin
We were among the first to mask up in 2020, and we were very bullish on controlling everything we could. Back then, I felt very comfortable saying, “Look, this is a municipal rule or this is a state law and we’re being asked to comply.” Last year, I lost sleep over what could happen if a guest got sick in one of my restaurants. But telling them what risks they should be taking gets pretty charged; they know their status better than I do.
Now it’s 2021 and I feel like it’s not a restaurant’s job to manage the health of its guests. We have signs posted, but I just control the things that I can, which are my staff and my policies. I will not put my staff at risk of having a shouting match with an unmasked person spraying spit in their face, when that person will go sit down and take their mask off to eat anyway. Even if the state came out with a harder policy today, I don’t think it would be enforceable, that cat is so far out of the bag. Everybody’s made up their minds and now we’re just arguing about which rules we want to cherry-pick, not even about what it means when everybody gets to cherry-pick their own rules.
Jon Bonnell, chef-owner of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine; Waters; and Buffalo Bros Pizza, Wings & Subs, all in Fort Worth
Restaurants didn’t make the original mask rule. We weren’t asked, but suddenly we were in charge of enforcing it. I’d say at our two fine dining restaurants, twenty to thirty percent of customers walk in with a mask on, but at the sports bar, maybe five percent wear one—and some people there actively laugh at them. It’s gotten even harder [since the state mask mandate was lifted] because the public has gotten even more politically polarized about it. If I posted on social media—say Facebook—and said that everybody who enters our restaurants is required to wear masks, I would get thirty people who would say, “You’ve saving lives” and thirty who would say, “I’ll never darken your doorway again, you’re un-Texan!” And if I said it the other way—we will never force a mask on you—some would say, “God bless you for freedom, you’re a great American!” and others would say, “You’re killing people right now.” It’s an impossible situation for restaurants. We’re putting masks on all our employees who deal with the public, but I’m not requiring it for customers. It’s a no-win and I don’t know the answer. [Bonnell has chronicled his pandemic experiences in Carry Out, Carry On: A Year in the Life of a Texas Chef.]
Kevin Fink, chef and co-owner of Emmer & Rye, Hestia, and Henbit, all in Austin
We wear masks, and we ask guests to when they’re not at their table. Early in the pandemic, we would confront them in the dining room and make sure they were adhering to our policy. It was really difficult. But several months ago, something became clear to me. I flew on an airline where a flight attendant kept walking up and down the entire time telling people to keep their masks on. It created an antagonistic scenario for them, and it had a negative impact on her—think about her stress and anxiety. I wanted to be sure our team was safe and secure, but I didn’t want them to have this extra burden of having to nitpick everything. So we shifted the emphasis back to hospitality. We only have so much time to establish a relationship with a guest, and if we’re taking a lot of it to discuss how they’re wearing their mask or whatnot, it makes it confrontational. This this time around, we are putting our mask policy out there clearly, but if a guest is very vehemently on the other side, we are not taking on the role of policing that. We are not putting ourselves in the crosshairs by confronting guests one way or the other. That is not hospitality.
Elizabeth Johnson, chef and owner at Pharm Table, San Antonio
We have a sign on the door with a beautiful drawing by a local artist that says, “Please wear a mask to enter our space,” and it has a little peace sign. I would say that ninety percent of people who come to dine at Pharm Table wear masks. I have Republicans and Democrats as customers, and I try not to alienate anybody. But the last couple of weeks have been a doozy, with new laws on abortion, guns, and voting. Talk about a triple whammy.
I have an ethical responsibility to keep my employees safe. It’s so shameful that the government of Texas—the people we elect to represent us—is putting the onus on us business owners to be the police officers for mask wearing. That’s what government is supposed to do! And if somebody flat-out says “Absolutely not,” what are we going to say to them? And what if another patron says, “Why aren’t you keeping all of us safe?” It leaves us tiptoeing on eggshells. We can’t force anyone, because the downstream effect could be a social media brouhaha or a smear campaign, or, God forbid, protesting [of our restaurant]. We have to kind of tuck our tail between our legs and gently, gently request it.
Erin Smith, co-owner of Feges BBQ in Houston
About six weeks ago, we noticed more customers voluntarily wearing masks and it got me to thinking. How could I make it comfortable for the customers who were the most nervous or the most susceptible to COVID? So now we are requiring masks for all of our employees. Without getting political, the easiest thing was to create a safe place for our employees. It’s not that hard to do or enforce; we treat it like part of a uniform. As a business owner, I don’t want to alienate anybody, because people are really polarized. It’s tough. Our two restaurants are both Feges BBQ. One is located in Greenway Plaza [an office complex] and it’s been open for about four years. Our second location is about three months old and is in Spring Branch. It has barbecue but also plated entrees, and a really nice wine list. I would guess thirty to forty percent of people at our neighborhood location are wearing masks. At our Greenway Plaza location downtown, it’s about 100 percent, probably because the building requires it.
Chris Shepherd, chef and owner of Georgia James Steakhouse, One Fifth, and other restaurants in Houston
With our staff, if you’re vaccinated, it’s at your discretion to wear a mask. If you’re not vaccinated, please wear a mask. We politely request [that customers wear] masks upon entering. We’d like to be able to enforce it, but that’s not going to happen. It’s just an uphill battle. It’s been dropped in our laps. It’s hard. If somebody gets belligerent about it, there is literally zero I can do. It’s really hard. It’s been laid on us to deal with it, and it’s become a political thing rather than a safety thing. My managers get yelled at, by people saying “It’s my liberty! It’s my right!”
[But the pro-mask, pro-vaccine side can be difficult too.] We had a client who bought out Georgia James for a private event and requested that everyone who came have proof of vaccination. One of the guests reported Georgia James to the TABC [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission] even though we didn’t make the rule. I think TABC sent us a letter afterward [but no action was taken]. Losing your liquor license or having it suspended—that’s game over.
These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.