Reopening Texas Restaurants at Full Capacity Puts Workers at Great Risk

At a press conference in Lubbock on Tuesday, March 2, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proudly announced that the state would allow all businesses to reopen at 100 percent capacity and end its mandate requiring the wearing of face masks. It’s a decision that comes almost exactly one year after the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest, and one that immediately raised questions about those who would be most impacted by Abbott’s move.

Throughout the pandemic, workers in the food service industry have been on the frontlines of a political battleground. Faced with the necessity of begging unruly customers to wear masks, their own increased likelihood of contracting COVID-19, and declining wages, the state’s grocery store and restaurant employees have borne a heavier burden than many who were able to work from home. The governor’s decision unnecessarily puts them at even more risk: Right now, allowing restaurants to reopen at full capacity right now is, put simply, a really terrible idea.

A number of Texas restaurateurs realize how dangerous this move is, and plan to continue with the safety measures that they implemented when dining establishments were allowed to reopen at limited capacity last summer. Despite being allowed to open at 100 percent capacity, Mike Snider, who owns beloved diner AllGood Cafe in Deep Ellum, plans to keep his restaurant at 75 percent of its normal dine-in capacity. The restaurant will also require that its staff — and patrons — wear masks when they’re inside.

“The dramatic downward curve is directly due to the safest practices and protocols and especially wearing masks in public,” Snider told Eater, referring to the downward trend of new COVID-19 cases statewide in recent weeks. “We are wearing masks and asking others out of respect each other’s health and hope nobody catches this virus. It’s pretty simple. We can all do this together.”

Even for restaurateurs that do plan to keep mask-wearing requirements in place, they’re nervous about how that’s going to go now that face coverings are no longer legally required. “This is not good,” Roots Chicken Shak owner Tiffany Derry said via Twitter on Tuesday. “Can you imagine the outrage people will have when they aren’t allowed to come inside the restaurant?” Snider shares those concerns, though he expects the pushback from diners to be “minor.”

To be clear, there is no debate on whether or not masks are effective in reducing the number of people who contract COVID-19. In fact, they are one of the most effective measures we have against this pandemic, which has killed nearly 45,000 Texans, more than 3,000 of which are in Dallas County. “You should focus on what doctors, facts, and science say is safe, not on what [the governor] says is legal,” Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, people who rely on the income that they earn at restaurants, grocery stores, and other food-service establishments don’t exactly have a choice in whether or not they can rely on science. They are forced to work in an environment where they face a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 — especially kitchen workers like line cooks, who are among the most likely people to die of the virus — that will become even greater as more people are allowed to crowd into dining spaces and bars.

Texas’s toothless mask mandate, social distancing requirements, and capacity limits have been widely flouted throughout the pandemic. There have never been any real penalties for those that break the rules other than being asked to leave an establishment and the occasional liquor license suspension. Who among us hasn’t come face-to-face with someone in a grocery store who still hasn’t figured out that the mask goes over their nose? How many times have you gone to pick up a takeout order only to see a full crowd of people sitting on the patio like they’ve never even heard of COVID-19? It hasn’t exactly been a great system.

What these restrictions have provided, though, is some cover to businesses as they argue with customers that, yes, in fact, restaurants and other private businesses can require masks indoors. Before, these establishments could tell people who were pissed off by being asked to wear a mask to take it up with the governor. The enforcement of these rules has always been in the hands of over-worked servers and 17-year-old Chipotle employees. But because of the governor’s actions, they’re now left to try to explain the moral imperative that comes with wearing a mask with very little back-up.

As Abbott insists that this move will help small businesses, who have struggled mightily throughout the pandemic, he fails to consider the very real impact that it will have on the people who work in those businesses. Outside of a meager rent relief program, Texas officials, especially Abbott, have done very little to provide relief to Texans who have seen their incomes decline because of the pandemic.

Of course, it’s possible that he doesn’t care about those people at all, considering that he has repeatedly advocated for liability protections that would prevent workers like cooks and servers from suing their employers over failing to follow the rules. The state also has not yet announced when restaurant employees and other food industry workers would be eligible for the vaccine.

It seems unlikely that this move will have any real financial impact on the businesses that are struggling, especially restaurants. The people who are, somehow, not afraid of COVID-19, have been crowding into businesses that break the rules since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, those who still have concerns about contracting the virus and spreading it to others or have not yet been vaccinated will continue to stick to takeout, and many dining rooms will still stay empty.

As long as there is a fear of getting sick, indoor dining will not return to “normal.” Instead of reopening businesses, Abbott should be spending his time making sure that Texans are vaccinated as quickly as possible. At this point, just 6 percent of the people who live in Texas are fully vaccinated. Estimates project that the Dallas area won’t reach herd immunity until June, and we have an obligation to continue with these essential safety practices in the interim.

At this point, with a little light at the end of the tunnel that hints at a return to some kind of “normalcy,” it makes no sense for us to ruin all the hard work we’ve done over the past year now. We have come too far, in getting people who hated masks to wear them regularly and reducing the number of people who are getting sick from this virus every single day, to fumble the ball on the one-yard-line now.

In spite of Abbott’s order, if we actually want the COVID-19 pandemic to end, the practices that we have implemented since last March have to continue as people across the state wait for their vaccines. That means continuing to stay away from crowded bars and restaurants, washing our hands as frequently as possible, and of course, wearing masks. As frustrating as all of those measures might be, these minor annoyances are decidedly better than knowing that your decisions resulted in the death of another person.

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