Following Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to rescind the state’s mandate requiring the wearing of masks in public places like restaurants, many bar and restaurant workers across North Texas are not looking forward to going back to work once their workplaces can resume operations at 100 percent capacity next week. The decision, which saddles local governments and privately owned businesses with the task of enforcing an essential public health measure, will undoubtedly have a disproportionate impact on these workers.
Sean Dudley, a bartender in Dallas and a student at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that he doesn’t feel safe working in an environment where masks are not required, even after having an extremely difficult time making ends meet over the past year. “As a bartender whose income has been severely affected by everything, I still disagree with the decision. It’s too soon. I want to feel safe visiting my mom,” Dudley told Eater. “I won’t be able to go see her, not knowing how much I’m being potentially exposed. This is too much, too soon, and I’m scared to work next week.”
As previously reported, service industry workers are at an especially high risk of contracting, and dying from, COVID-19. A 2020 study conducted by the University of California found that food workers, including those who work in restaurants, have died of the virus at a rate that is 40 percent higher than workers in other professions. For Latinx employees in the food service industry, that increase in disparity jumps to 60 percent.
For workers like Catherine Chambers, a Fort Worth resident who works multiple jobs in the service industry, Texas’s elimination of the mask mandate is prompting some to quit their jobs entirely. “The pilates studio that I work at and Panther Island Brewing both have decided to continue enforcing the CDC guidelines,” Chambers says. But her other employer, Dutch’s Hamburgers, has decided that it will not require patrons to wear masks inside the restaurant — only employees. “Friday is going to be my last day,” Chambers says of the policy. She considers herself lucky that she can walk away from an employment situation she deems unsafe, but understands that many of her fellow service industry workers may be unable to afford to quit.
Although the Biden administration has issued an executive order that allows employees to file for unemployment benefits if they refuse unsafe work, it can still take several weeks to be approved and begin receiving funds. Consequently, those who live paycheck to paycheck may feel compelled to work in an environment they deem unsafe just to make ends meet.
Workers like Chambers have already been on the receiving end of abuse from combative and foul-mouthed customers who have refused to wear masks, even when it was mandated by the state. Now, she fears that those who view mask requirements as politically motivated restrictions on their liberties will be emboldened by the repeal of the mask mandate.
“Less than a week ago, a Texas Christian University employee came into the bar,” Chambers says. “He told me it was his right not to wear [a mask], and I said that it’s my right not to serve you. He started yelling and called me a bitch and told me that he hates this fucking place and he was never coming back,” Chambers says.
But Chambers also thinks her employers, both current and former, have been placed between a rock and a hard place, and harbors no ill will toward the owners of Dutch’s. “To be basically told like you can go back to making money in a regular way or you can decide that your employee safety matters is not fair… I think that’s terrible to put that on a business, especially a small or independent business,” Chambers says. She’s also concerned about the fact that the majority of service industry workers in Texas have yet to be vaccinated.
“It would have made me feel better if they had vaccinated all the food service workers,” Chambers says. As of right now, restaurant and bar workers are still not yet eligible for the vaccine in Texas, and don’t know when they will be.
That’s been top-of-mind for Jose Gonzalez, a bartender and founder of the Los Tlacuaches popup series, as new variants of COVID-19 continue to be detected in Texas. Just this week, Houston became the first city in the country to identify all five of the major COVID-19 strains, and Gonzalez thinks that Dallas might be next.
“The ending of the mask mandate will give everyone the sense of normalcy which is not what we need,” he says. “We need accurate information to help understand where we’re really at after a year of inaction. This just makes it feel like all the work others have done to keep us safe was for nothing.”