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Austin restaurants react to Texas Gov. Abbott lifting coronavirus limits, mask mandate

Matthew Odam
Austin 360

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced that he would lift all capacity restrictions for businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as end the state mask mandate. Austin's restaurant community was swift to react.

Abbott, in lifting the restrictions, cited declining hospitalizations across the state as more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus. His new executive order will take effect next Wednesday. He said that businesses can still limit capacity, require masks or implement other safety measures if they choose to do so. The move flouts warnings from health experts and federal officials, who have urged caution from state officials as new, more contagious variants could lead to a rebound in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations after promising declines.

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Gov. Greg Abbott speaks about the winter storm at the State Operations Center on Feb. 18. On March 2, Abbott announced he was lifting Texas' coronavirus pandemic capacity limits and ending the state mask mandate.

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 on March 15, 2020, a couple of days before the governor ordered dining rooms closed. 

Fojtasek, who has yet to reopen the dining room at his restaurant that has been temporarily transformed into a take-out biscuit cafe, reacted to Abbott’s announcement 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.”

The owner of one of the city’s best restaurants 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 wanna 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.”

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"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,” said Austin chef and Olamaie owner Michael Fojtasek.

Other Austin hospitality businesses made their intentions for the future clear with their own social media posts. East Austin’s Flitch Coffee, all-day cafe and restaurant Better Half, North Loop neighborhood Foreign & Domestic and El Naranjo in South Austin all both posted images that stated no service would be given to people not wearing masks. East Austin's Suerte posted asking for customers to continue to wear masks and added that the restaurant would maintain its limited capacity and social distancing policies. 

Not all restaurants shared the sentiment. Fort Worth celebrity chef Tim Love, who owns and operates Lonesome Dove in downtown Austin, posted a picture of himself with a Stella Artois beer 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! Thanks to everyone who worked so hard and for keeping each other safe. GOD BLESS TEXAS!”

Texas Restaurant Association and Education Foundation president and CEO Emily Williams Knight said the 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 chooses to do away with social distancing and mask requirements at their business, many service industry workers will not have the choice to opt out of being in the space that a casual consumer would. Williams Knight did not see it that way.

"I think that’s where it’s going to come back to both employees and consumers do vote with their feet," she said. "I think that’s been very important. We’ve also noticed that with the vaccine conversation, we’ve had a tremendous number. Austin’s a great example. Those operators have had real discussions with their employees about the vaccine, and we’re working very hard to lobby to make sure restaurant workers and hospitality workers are in that next round, which will be announced in March."

More:Here's how many people have received a COVID-19 vaccine in Travis County

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"A lot of restaurants have determined what their employees and their customers need to feel safe and will continue doing those things," she continued. 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 9 months."

Williams Knight said she hoped this new phase did not force restaurants into a political position.

"Most of COVID-19 has turned political in many regards," she said. "So our job as an association is to continue to message out the survey data from consumers, as we will begin polling tonight our restaurants to get a good sense of where they’re headed. But we have to remember, we know so much more than we did before, and we know so much more about consumer behavior."

She declined to weigh in on whether it would be reckless for a restaurant to not require employees or customers to wear masks.

"We can’t take a stand for that restaurant," she said. "Every restaurant is an individual business and every consumer can choose to go into a business."

Nicole Cobler contributed to this report.