On Tuesday, Texas governor Greg Abbot held a press conference announcing that as of March 10th, the state will no longer have a mask mandate and that “all businesses of any type” can go back to 100% capacity. The decision comes at a time when Texas, whose 29 million residents comprise 8.8% of the US population, makes up 14% of new COVID cases and 11.7% for seven-day average.
In his address announcing the new executive order, which took place on Texas Independence Day of all days, Abbott states that Texans have “mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID” (we haven’t, see the numbers above), repeating the familiar refrain of “personal responsibility.” Preventative measures like wearing a mask and social distancing, according to Abbott, are crucial in keeping ourselves, our families, and our communities safe—just not enough to require them.
With the buck effectively passed, Texas coffee shops have now been put to a difficult decision: do they avoid controversy and get back to “business as usual” or do they continue to protect staff by requiring masks? I reached out to around a dozen cafe owners across the state, and found they shared two prevailing sentiments: repealing the mandate now is dangerous, and the masks are staying on.
To a person, every one of the owners I spoke with (as of press time) stated they would continue with the safety protocols currently in place, including mask wearing. “We cannot, in good conscience, remove any of our safety protocols. Our first priority is their safety and to provide a safe space for our community,” Patrick and Krystal Burns of Amarillo’s Palace Coffee, which is currently operating at 75% capacity, said in a statement. Sean Henry of Houndstooth Coffee with locations in Austin and Dallas shared a similar sentiment. “As we have for the past year, we will continue to follow the science and prioritize our staff’s health in our decision making.” For their part, Robby Grubbs states that Local Coffee Founders in San Antonio's safety protocols aren’t changing and that that the cafe will continue to limit capacity to 50%, with no bar seating.
Mia Moss, owner of Black Coffee in Fort Worth, sees the mandate repeal as yet another setback for a state that has seen its fair share recently. “Small businesses have been hit the hardest, and this is another hit right after the winter storm that we are still trying to recover from,” Moss tells Sprudge. “We need to support each other. That’s the way to recover from all of this.”
For many, like Patrick Pierce of Fleet Coffee in Austin, the move away from mask requirements is premature. “It’s just too early for our governor to enact this measure when we are just now seeing promising data,” Pierce tells Sprudge, going on to call the decision negligent on the part of the governor. The issue for Pierce and others is the availability of the vaccine. With only 11.6% of the state having received the first dose—under half that having both shots—the vaccine is currently in high demand in Texas, and service industry workers are still having to wait their turn while older Texans and high-risk individuals take priority.
Pierce expects Fleet to “continue to require masks until there is a greater percentage of the public vaccinated and our staff has also received the vaccine.” Henry concurs. “Without vaccine distribution easily available to all our staff, this free-for-all allowed by the governor is irresponsible and ill-advised.” Likewise, David Buehrer of Coral Sword in Houston says the inflection point is a wider vaccine distribution: “When our staff and ourselves have the opportunity to get vaccinated, we’d love to explore reopening fully.”
With cafes across the state staying the course, the question remains as to how the public will respond. Reactions to the governor's announcement both locally and nationally have been swift and critical. Nonetheless, the battle against a deadly pandemic is weirdly political, with many who conflate mask requirements and personal freedoms taking out their ire on frontline workers. With Abbott declining to offer any sort of cover for these business by keeping masks mandatory, he has all but assured the frenzy he and his ilk have fomented will only increase. The lives of hospitality workers have been intentionally put at risk for the purpose of political virtue signaling.
As a born and bred Texan whose morning routine includes checking the latest COVID case counts, the rolling back of safety protocols terrifies me. We're slowly creeping back up to 10,000 new cases a day, and nowhere near out of the woods; it could be argued the only reason the cases went down in the first place was because the state shut down for a week after winter weather the state was woefully unprepared for wreaked havoc on the power grid. With new, more contagious variants emerging and the CDC recommending continued, expanded masking protocols, now is not the time to roll back what scant protections we have left.