Last Wednesday night after rainstorms drove away the typical Houston humidity, a party of 35 celebrating a birthday filled every seat on the covered patio at Roma, a casual Italian restaurant in Rice Village. They dined on pasta and seafood and drank bold Italian red wines. Other customers passed under the patio’s string lights and ivy on their way inside, some wearing masks although they’re not required by the restaurant, and others going without. The simple, rustic-style indoor dining room was about half full, and Italian music played softly overhead. Just one week after Texas governor Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate and allowed restaurants to open at 100 percent capacity, Roma looked like it might have on any week night before COVID-19. 

Just half a block away, D’Amico’s Italian Market Cafe, known for Southern Italian specialties and homemade pasta, appeared to be in a different stage of the pandemic. As at most other restaurants in the area, D’Amico’s customers who weren’t seated were required to wear face coverings, and bright yellow laminated signs sat atop every other table in the dining room indicating that they were off limits to ensure social distancing. Of the available tables, about three quarters were filled. In front of the restaurant, on a covered patio where tables were also spaced out, diners enjoyed wood-fired pizzas and hearty pastas. 

When Abbott lifted pandemic restrictions on businesses March 10, he said Texans knew the “right thing to do” and urged continued mask-wearing but left to shop owners and restaurateurs the decision of how or whether to continue to take COVID-19 precautions. While D’Amico’s continues to limit seating and require face coverings in its dining room, Roma has opened at full capacity and is saying arrivederci to mask mandates. Although their decisions are different, their reasons are the same: the owners of both restaurants justify their choices as in the best interests of their employees after an emotionally and economically taxing year. 

According to a Texas Restaurant Association survey, two thousand Houston-area restaurants shuttered in 2020, and the National Restaurant Association estimates that from last February through January of this year, Texas lost 135,600 food service jobs. Early in the crisis, “support local restaurants” was a rallying cry, but enthusiasm dropped off as the reality of a year-long crisis started to set in. The owners of both D’Amico’s and Roma worried at times during the pandemic that they would have to close their doors for good. As the months dragged on, D’Amico’s cut back on menu offerings and inventory, and reduced staff shifts. At Roma, owner Shanon Scott, who’s worked in the Houston restaurant scene for three decades, furloughed everyone except the chef for about six weeks after the statewide dining-room shutdown started on March 19, 2020. Scott was taking carry-out orders, running them out to cars, and washing dishes. Cooks and waitstaff at both restaurants collected unemployment benefits while the owners applied for federal paycheck protection loans and struggled to pay rent. Several of Scott’s employees have had to rely on food banks to feed their families.

Scott said that experience necessitated opening up at full capacity and dropping mask mandates for diners inside the restaurant. While restrictions on businesses were in place, he had experimented with unique ways to increase revenue—including offering virtual wine dinners every Thursday night to those who order takeout—but said his staff still has only earned about half as much as they usually do this past year. “We can’t choose between protecting our lives and livelihoods,” he wrote in a Houston Chronicle opinion piece. “Today, every restaurant owner faces a dilemma that falls somewhere between a rock and a hard place. And no matter what they decide to do, their businesses will suffer.”

Scott is still requiring his staff of thirteen, all rehired after businesses were allowed to reopen at reduced capacity in May, to wear masks at all times. They continue to sanitize tables and restrooms regularly. But he said the mask mandate for guests always seemed untenable and unenforceable in a restaurant setting: diners can’t wear masks while they eat or drink, and at Roma, the indoor dining area is the size of an average living room, with the distance between the door and the first table measuring only about three feet. “I’m not the mask police,” Scott said. “I’m in the food business, the hospitality business; I’m not here to have people arrested.”

Since his opinion piece was published, he’s received some pushback online, but Scott said at least ten restaurant owners called to thank him for speaking out about the realities of running a restaurant a year into the pandemic. And guests have been supportive as well. On the first night the mask mandate was lifted, Scott said many diners told him they had read the piece and were there to support him.  

Carlo Massimo, a waiter at Roma, said he supported his boss’s decision and feels safe. “The customer, you decide what you want,” Massimo said. “If everybody wears the masks just a little more, I think it’s a little better.”

The health of their employees motivated the father-daughter owners of D’Amico’s to continue to require masks and keep capacity limited. The virus has struck close to home: a former employee, who was married to a longtime bus boy, died recently from COVID. With some of its tables not in use to maintain social distancing, the dining room is still operating at only about 50 to 60 percent capacity, and the staff is making less money than before the pandemic. But those I talked to were willing to continue with restrictions. “The money is a big deal, but the staff, I think for the majority, feel okay with keeping it the way it is because we all just care about each other,” said Chris Miyamoto, the manager of the restaurant. 

Brina D’Amico, who has worked at the restaurant since it opened in 1996 and now runs it with her father, said they received “a ton” of calls after Abbott’s announcement asking what they planned to do. Most were supportive of the continued restrictions, but D’Amico and the staff braced for pushback—even writing a script to use in case of an outburst. So far, no diners have become confrontational at D’Amico’s, but that hasn’t been the case at other area restaurants that have continued mask requirements. Last week in League City, just south of Houston, a man stabbed a Jack in the Box employee who asked him to leave after he refused to put on a mask, police say. And the staff at Picos, a Mexican restaurant a mile and a half from D’Amico’s, received calls and emails threatening to report its employees to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after it said it would continue requiring masks.

“We knew we were going to upset some, but we felt like we were going to upset more people by removing the mask mandate,” D’Amico said. “And ultimately, we wanted to make sure that we kept everybody safe.” 

Owners of both restaurants said business is starting to pick up again, and they consider themselves lucky to be among the eateries left standing one year into the pandemic. Miyamoto said that even with continued reduced capacity. D’Amico’s has begun hitting numbers it hasn’t seen since before COVID. And Scott said Roma is getting closer to its pre-COVID numbers as well, now serving about 75 percent of the total diners it used to see on the weekends. 

As closing time neared at D’Amico’s last Wednesday night, David and Whitney Ambrus, regulars of the restaurant, finished wine on the patio. The couple said they agreed with Abbott’s decision to lift the requirements, but expected every restaurant would still require masks and wore them to be respectful, in case they were seated inside. “I’ve just gotten used to it,” David said, shrugging. 

The couple both came down with COVID in October. While Whitney recovered after a few days, David was knocked out for weeks. “I had it bad enough to know I don’t want it again,” David said, as he took a sip of wine. He then gestured at waiters and other diners. “That’s why I’m like, okay, I’ll wear a mask. I’ll be respectful because I don’t want them to get it.”