“It is now time to open Texas 100%” announced Texas Governor Greg Abbott today. His latest executive order removes all mask requirements, allows businesses to operate at full capacity, and removes any penalty from residents who choose not to wear a mask. Texas is the largest state in the country to end the mask mandate, joining the ranks of Michigan, Louisiana and Mississippi.
And it’s terrifying for health experts as well as restaurant owners and operators.
The announcement comes after a consistent decline in new Covid-19 cases and related hospitalizations throughout the country. But health experts warn: just because numbers are lower than the historic highs, doesn’t mean the situation is under control. There are still roughly 68,000 new cases a day. And with new, highly contagious variants identified in the US this month, now doesn’t seem like the time to be reopening.
Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a member of the President Joe Biden’s Transition Covid-19 Advisory Board, told CNN, “We should not ease up, allow indoor dining, big groups…getting rid of mask mandates…We’re still having, on average, 2,000 (Covid-19) deaths a day. We cannot become inured to that.”
Local health experts worry that the relaxed measures will undue all the progress the state has made and make the new variables even more contagious.
As of 1 March, only 6.8% of Texans are fully vaccinated. To reach herd immunity, experts estimate 75% - 90% of Texans will need to be vaccinated. “Whatever the governor has recommended, it should not change what people do in terms of wearing masks or not,” Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and the state’s Covid-19 task force, told The Texas Tribune.
“It’s very clear that we need to continue to wear masks in public places, period. Regardless of whether there’s an order from the governor or not. The bottom line is the individual decision making that has to take place that ultimately makes the outcomes.”
At the press conference, Governor Abbot stressed, “Removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility…personal vigilance to follow the same standards is still needed to contain COVID.” But in reality, by taking away the mask mandate – business operators bear the brunt of enforcing Covid-19 safety protocol, which has the potential to be deadly.
So once again, the government has shifted responsibility and given bars and restaurants an impossible decision: open at capacity to pay the bills, but risk the lives of their employees, or struggle to survive on half capacity and take-away orders?
To get an idea of how operators are feeling on the ground, we reached out to several Evolve alumni in Austin, Texas. Despite their anger, they're determined to keep their teams safe and their doors open.
Travis Tober | Co-Owner at Nickle City
“I agree with loosening the restrictions but dropping the mask mandate is ridiculous. It gives the bar owners no tools in the bag. So now we’re stuck between being hospitable and being the ones to remind guests we still reserve the right to make our own rules. It’s a super fine line.”
Adam Orman | General Manager & Owner at L’Oca d’Oro; founding member of Good Work Austin
We are furious that Texas keeps lowering the bar for what is considered safe. There is zero reason to move away from masks while thousands of people are still contracting the virus, except to move the narrative away from the Governor's anemic response to the Big Freeze. It is heartless to tell $2.13/hr employees with no paid sick leave that they should work indoors with mask-less people drinking alcohol, and not at least guarantee them a position in the next phase of vaccinations. We’ve re-opened too early twice already, and it has led to cases spiking and more deaths each time. One can only conclude that the Governor is cruel beyond belief or criminally misinformed. When we re-open outdoors only next month, we will be doing nothing differently. We will require masks for our servers. They will be tested weekly. We will ask guests to complete a health declaration and replace their masks when interacting with servers. All tables will be distanced according to CDC guidelines.
Jessica Sanders | Owner at DrinkWell
Governor Abbott’s announcement today is incredibly disappointing, but not at all surprising. His administration, and in fact, Republican-led policies at large, have never prioritized the safety of front-line workers, or the health of our communities. These reckless moves are wrapped in gauzy language of “personal responsibility” and getting Texas “back to work” but at its core, this is failed leadership, plain and simple. We will absolutely continue to require masks and social distancing among our own staff and guests.
Justin Lavenue | Owner & Operator at The Roosevelt Room & The Eleanor
We very strongly feel that this decision is being made too hastily. Texas is still recording an average of almost 8,000 new cases each day for the last seven days. Lessening the restrictions on capacities, and eliminating the mask mandate, is certain to increase the case count across the state and put more people at risk. We absolutely feel that hospitality workers who work at establishments that will not require their patrons to wear masks and social distance are at risk. Thankfully, there are many establishments in Texas that will continue to require masks and to keep guests socially distanced. The announcement will not change anything in terms of how we serve our guests. The safety of our guests and our staff is still our top priority, and we will continue to operate under some of the strictest safety and sanitation standards in the industry.
Sarah Heard | Chef & Owner at Foreign & Domestic
Safety was not a consideration in this decision to remove the mandates that have protected us. We want nothing more than to go back to normal but we know that this decision will only cause more people to throw caution to the wind and create a rise in cases. We were finally headed in the right direction, but this decision has derailed all previous efforts. We feel that this is simply another shift of responsibility and blame into the hands of business owners. If we require masks, people will be angry with us for "infringing on their rights"; if we don’t require masks, people will feel uncomfortable dining with us and be angry that we aren’t protecting them. If we don’t require masks, our staff will feel unsafe and find other employment. We are continuing with six-foot spacing and mask mandates as we have since May 21. We know that wearing the masks does not hurt anything, we don’t know that not wearing them has the same effect, so this decision is a no-brainer. If nothing else, we are doing it to show our staff that their safety is above all else.
KC Hensley | Board Member of Lifted Spirits
We aren’t prepared for people to stop wearing masks, and safety precautions are still needed. We can see the finish line, but we can't start celebrating yet. We, as an industry, are primarily a demographic that is uninsured— and we're not even allowed to get the vaccine as of yet. We need to be prioritized for vaccination, which is why I created a petition to prioritize hospitality folks for the vaccine. These regulation lifts are suspect, and they don't seem to have the public's health and well-being in mind. The hospitality industry gets punched in the face once again. [Sign the petition here]
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. If you’re a Texas operator in favor of the new regulations, reach out to [email protected] to tell your side of the story.