Texas Gov. Greg Abbott may have allowed the state’s restaurants to operate both at full capacity and without mask requirements beginning March 10, but business who do so may risk alienating their customers. For now, most Houstonians want mask wearing and capacity restrictions to continue.
In an informal poll I conducted on Instagram (asking if restaurant customers and diners would patronize establishments that open at 100 percent without masks), 125 out of a total of 135 of respondents said they would not patronize such a restaurant. Those who responded to my question include frequent Houston diners.
Participants offered a number of reasons for their choice, including concern for the safety of restaurant workers, the lack of access to vaccines, and CDC guidelines that continue to emphasize mask wearing.
Some of those who responded that they’re ready for maskless dining at full capacity indicated that they’ve either received a dose of the vaccine or have immunity after recovering from COVID-19. Others said they won’t patronize restaurants that continue to require masks.
Despite that vocal minority, many Houston restaurants have indicated they will continue to operate at limited capacity and with mask requirements for customers when not seated at their table. The view may be best summed up by Anvil owner Bobby Heugel’s post to Instagram.
Dozens of other Houston restaurants have issued their own statements indicating they will continue to operate with their current procedures in place. “We feel strongly that it is not our time to loosen any protocols for everyone’s safety,” Goodnight Night Hospitality, the restaurant group behind Rosie Cannonball and Montrose Cheese & Wine, stated. “That time will come when everyone has the equal ability to easily find a vaccine.”
Local blog It’s Not Hou It’s Me has created a crowd-sourced list with hundreds of entries for local businesses that will maintain various COVID protocols, including capacity restrictions and mask requirements for both customers and employees.
Still, the possibility exists that restaurant workers will receive angry responses from people who object to wearing masks. Late last year, an employee at Grand Prize bar was assaulted by a patron after being told to wear a mask while walking to the restroom.
Operators who are struggling with how to manage these concerns don’t have good choices. During a press conference after Abbott’s announcement, Kelsey Erickson Streufert, the Texas Restaurant Association’s vice president for government relations and advocacy, acknowledged that confrontations may occur; she encouraged diners to respect a business’ decision to operate as it sees fit.
“We call upon every single Texan to show each other grace and kindness and patience. Everyone has strong opinions about the virus and what we need to be doing, but at the end of the day, these are small business owners in many cases with young employees who are just trying to do the best job that they can.”
That sounds pretty optimistic, but it might happen as long as the majority of customers support operating with COVID protocols in place.