Starting on Wednesday, March 10, Texas restaurants and bars will be permitted to operate with no state-mandated mask requirements, capacity limits, nor social distancing measures, as ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Austin service industry is mad. Several local groups — Restaurant Organizing Project, the Texas Service Industry Coalition, the Amplified Sound Coalition, Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, and Austin Mutual Aid — held a rally outside of the State Capitol on Monday, March 8 to express their frustrations with the lack of protections and support from state officials.
During the rally, service industry workers shared their fears and concerns about having to work without any COVID-related safety measures while also not currently being eligible for the vaccine. They’re asking Gov. Abbott to delay reopening Texas until 70 percent of essential workers are vaccinated. Currently, 91 percent of the entire Texas population hasn’t been vaccinated, and there is no scheduled date for when service workers are eligible for the vaccine.
“We need them to change by Wednesday that classification, and make sure all essential workers in customer-facing roles,” rally organizer Crystal Maher says, “If you’re a janitor, a bus driver, a grocery store worker, a restaurant worker, a journalist — it’s putting yourself out there and you’re risking your lives.”
“It’s a slap in the face to all of the low-wage workers,” who usually don’t have health insurance, Jeannette Gregor, a rally organizer and founder of Amplified Sound Coalition, tells Eater. “This is just a terrible move for all essential workers,” she says. “We will get sick and we are the ones being sacrificed.” Many of the rally participants donned face masks featuring the word “expendable,” because, as she explains, “That is exactly how we feel.”
Reopening the state fully and no longer requiring masks as a statewide rule makes the jobs of service industry workers — servers, bartenders, maintenance staffers, hosts — that much more difficult, according to organizers. While individual businesses are allowed to implement their own COVID-19 measures and Austin and Travis County just announced today that it is still requiring masks in the area, the lack of a cohesive approach from the state will present issues with enforcement when certain people choose not to listen. Conflicts during the rally illustrated that tension, with anti-mask people frequently interrupting speakers.
As a bartender, Gregor will now have to enforce the rules dictated by her workplace, to ensure the safety of her coworkers and customers. “The decision to remove the mandate was not made by anyone who has had to argue over and over again with a customer to keep it on for the length of one fucking transaction,” she says.
Gregor and many others say Abbott’s orders fly in the face of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. “The CDC has said in no uncertain terms: Without masks, without social distancing, and without keeping things at lower capacity, more people will get sick,” Gregor says. “And of those people that get sick, there is a certain percentage that will die.”
Gregor is particularly concerned about St. Patrick’s Day. “That’s a huge, massive bar industry day. That is absolutely terrifying to think of right now.” She doesn’t trust the state government to allow the city to do what it can to protect people, nodding to how Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton sued Austin and Travis County three times to overturn local attempts to implement a citywide restaurant and bar curfew over New Year’s weekend. “We have a massive trust issue with our state right now.”
The process of getting the vaccine is still difficult to procure for those who are eligible with high-risk conditions and age requirements. Another service industry worker at the rally, Karen Hamilton, notes that she’s unemployed right now, because she is high-risk and doesn’t want to jeopardize her children. Service industry workers who quit because of feeling unsafe due to the pandemic aren’t automatically eligible for unemployment, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, but under the Biden administration, these workers should still be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Claudia Zapata, another speaker who is also the treasurer of the Del Valle Community Coalition, points to the service industry’s racial and income demographics — low-income, minorities, people who live in multi-generational households which typically include high-risk family members — that in many ways mirror high-risk categories for COVID-19:. “Do our lives not matter?” Zapata asked during the rally. “We are thanked every day as essential workers. Yet no one seems to give us any sort of dignity. You don’t even want to raise the minimum wage. You don’t want to provide any hazard pay.”
During the rally, Gregor pointed out that it’s been a year since South by Southwest — the huge festival that employed most of the city’s service workers in some capacity — was canceled due to the then-looming pandemic. “Thousands of our jobs, by the government, were put on hold indefinitely for the safety of our families, our communities, and ourselves,” she says, placing them “immediately in financial crisis,” without income.
“Did our sacrifice result in any action from our governor?” Gregor asked. “Did the state of Texas give us any protections? Any policy or bill focuses on the people who live paycheck to paycheck who were all readily already battling food insecurity?”
The rally was intentionally held on International Women’s Day, which began as a way to honor a labor strike in 1909. “How can we come home to our families? How can we take care of our loved ones if we are exposed at work to a deadly virus?” Gregor says. “The decision to reopen the state at 100 percent has made Texas the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory of the country,” referring to the deadly fire that killed workers in a New York City garment factory in 1911 — one that began because of unsafe working conditions. “We are all now locked behind steel doors waiting for a spark,.”
Gregor concluded that it would require political force of will to make these policies reality. “Invest in your workers, invest in us,” she summed up. “Take care of us like we take care of you.”