Uncertainty, anger, joy: Businesses react to Abbott dropping mask mandate
Business operators in Austin and throughout Central Texas expressed a mix of uncertainty, anger and relief after Gov. Greg Abbott's announced that he's lifting the mask mandate in Texas and allowing businesses to return to 100% capacity beginning March 10.
That news drew criticism from some in the business community, who said dropping the mask order would increase the risk of workers and consumers contracting COVID-19 – but it won praise from others, who said recent declines in cases justify the decision to allow businesses to get back to more normal operations.
Laura Huffman, CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said continuing to wear masks in public will serve the entire community.
"There are practical things each of us can do to keep ourselves and those around us safe as businesses reopen to full capacity - one of those is choosing to wear a mask in public," Huffman said. "We believe a mask on each of us is a win for all of us and urge businesses to continue implementing measures that protect both employees and patrons.
Here's a look at how specific sectors of the business community responded to the news.
H-E-B, other retail stores update mask policy
Grocery chain H-E-B, the dominant grocer in Central Texas, said that while customers will be encouraged to wear masks in its stores, they will no longer be required. Employees and vendors still will be required to wear masks, the company said.
"Although there is no longer a statewide mask order, H-E-B believes it is important that masks be worn in public spaces until more Texans and our partners have access to the COVID-19 vaccine," the San Antonio-based company said in a written statement. "H-E-B will still require all our partners and vendors to wear masks while at work, and we urge all customers to please wear a mask when in our stores."
Randalls said employees and vendors will continue to be required to wear face coverings. Customers will be encouraged to wear masks but they will not be required, the company said.
Austin-based grocer Fresh Plus, which has three stores, said it will keep enforcing its mask policy.
"We will continue to require all shoppers and employees to wear masks when inside the store," said Averey Robertson, store manager of the chain's Anderson Lane store. "The sign on our door says, 'Masks required to enter,' and that will stay the same."
The lifting of mask requirements will put a burden on small, local merchants, said Elizabeth Dixie Patrick, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance.
"This means small business owners have to go back to having to enforce safety protocols alone, without the government behind them to back them up," Patrick said.
Patrick said she was "stunned" by Abbott's announcement, but feels confident that Austin will respond responsibly.
"The city of Austin, the citizens of Austin, the local business owners have been incredible throughout this difficult time," she said. "I believe that the city of Austin as a municipality will make good decisions for the public good."
Patrick said that even if Austin can't create its own mandates, "hopefully they come out strong with public messaging that can maybe mitigate the impact."
Olamaie chef Michael Fojtasek was the first major restaurant owner in Austin to close his dining room due to the public health threat from the coronavirus, shuttering last March a few days before the governor ordered dining rooms closed.
Fojtasek reacted to Abbott’s announcement Tuesday with an all-caps Instagram post that read: “Reopening Texas Without Vaccinating Hospitality Workers is Murder.”
“I know people who have caught the virus and died from it,” Fojtasek told the American-Statesman on Tuesday. “I know that there are people who are in the homes of the people who work with me who are at risk and who are not vaccinated. This is the second time that our state leadership has put us in a bad position by reopening too early. We had made some progress, and now it’s all going to be walked back.”
Fojtasek said that the governor’s decision has created more urgency in the hospitality industry about getting workers vaccinated. He said that the Texas Restaurant Association has stepped up by reaching out to vaccine suppliers like CVS in hopes of setting up mass vaccination sites.
Fojtasek said that reopening the state will make more sense once restaurant workers are vaccinated and can feel safe about returning to work.
“My whole thing is I just want to get our teams vaccinated so we can open safely. That’s it. That’s been my issue since the moment the vaccine was announced until this moment. If we can just get vaccinated, then we can run these businesses. Just don’t put it out of order.”
Some restaurant owners and operators praised Abbott's decision. Fort Worth celebrity chef Tim Love, who owns and operates Lonesome Dove in downtown Austin, posted a picture of himself with a caption that read, “In true Texas form - Gov Abbott announces on #TexasIndependenceDay that it’s time for us to return to our regularly scheduled program! 100 percent capacity and NO MORE MASK MANDATE!”
Texas Restaurant Association and Education Foundation President and CEO Emily Williams Knight said her group had been in discussions with Abbott's office since last March about guidelines for restaurants.
"So that’s how we were able to work with a large group of restaurant owners to create the Restaurant Promise, which mirrors his protocols," she said. "We have never made any decisions for the governor, but we certainly are sought after for input, and clearly he’s been working with his medical team to make these decisions."
If an operator chooses to do away with social distancing and mask requirements at their business, some service industry workers might have to make a choice between their job and being in an environment where customers aren't required to wear mask. Williams Knight said many restaurant operators "have determined what their employees and their customers need to feel safe and will continue doing those things.
Even without a mandate, she said the group believes that "restaurants will keep those safety protocols that have helped them stay in business these last nine months."
Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, said that “consumer confidence for in-person experiences is low due to public health realities.”
With tours and festivals that help venues pay the rent unlikely to return nationwide for some time, Cowan said he is concerned that a “return to 100% will not only negatively affect public health, but also may also trigger outstanding debt as due, by manufacturing the false public perception of financial viability for cultural tourism businesses.”
Dianne Scott, publicity director of the Continental Club on South Congress Avenue, said she was furious about Abbott's decision. Beyond the risks to service industry workers, she said it sent the wrong message to people who are on the fence about whether to get the vaccine. "It's going to tell them that they don't need to. It's going to cost more lives. No question about it," she said.
Austin musician Mobley posted several remarks on Twitter that were critical of the governor’s announcement. “This will extend (& maybe mutate) a deadly pandemic & the death/suffering it’ll bring are the most important thing to worry about,” he wrote in one post. “Also, spare a thought for those of us who depend on crowds to work and stand to lose YEARS of our careers to this. Pleeeeeease mask and distance.”
Additional material from American-Statesman writers Deborah Sengupta Stith, Peter Blackstock, Shonda Novak and Kara Carlson.