Not all Texans were rejoicing at the chance to show their faces in public again after Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that businesses won't be required to enforce face masking or limit their capacity come March 2. Abbott’s announcement set Twitter ablaze with backlash, including the trending hashtag RIPTexas, while President Biden accused Abbott (and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who made a similar call) of “Neanderthal thinking.”
One of the most widespread bits of criticism over Abbott’s decision was that while businesses may still require patrons to wear masks the burden to reinforce COVID safety policies falls on employees, making them subject to harassment from anti-maskers, a recurring trend in 2020 when private businesses implemented mask requirements before any official mandates were in place.
A large portion of essential workers are also minorities who have no choice but to continue working. Abbott’s order could leave them more vulnerable to contracting COVID, as The Washington Post reported.
Retailers such as Kroger, Best Buy and Ulta recently announced that they will adhere to their current mask policies even in states where mask mandates have been lifted. And if you thought you'd finally be able to read your server's lips over the loud music at local venues in the next week, it might be harder than you think.
Several Dallas music venues say they will continue to comply with CDC guidelines (including the use of masks) and are more concerned with the safety of their employees and patrons than with appeasing customers who wish to be maskless in public.
Kim Finch, who owns DoubleWide and Thunderbird Station in Deep Ellum and SingleWide in the Lowest Greenville neighborhood, says her venues will not change their policies despite Abbott's decision.
Finch says the bars will be offering “a little more seating” but will continue to require social distancing.
“And we will still be at somewhat of a reduced capacity to keep our staff and customers safe,” she says.
Finch requires her employees to take weekly COVID tests and do temperature checks at the beginning of shifts. Bar employees also disinfect restrooms hourly and take other safety precautions, she says.
Employees working at businesses that serve food and drinks are especially vulnerable to contagion, Finch says.
“Our staff is not vaccinated, and they are still dealing with the masses that are unmasked while drinking/eating,” she says. “Also handling your glassware and utensils that have your mouth on it, so it puts them at a higher risk.”
Employee exposure to COVID can also put an entire business at financial risk, Finch says.
“When our staff gets sick they have to be out of work and pulled from the schedule for 14 days,” she says. “We are already incredibly short-staffed so, if dealing with more unmasked patrons, the risk is greater of getting sick and losing staff. If that happens, we would have to close since we are already very short-staffed. Keeping our staff and customers safe and healthy is imperative.”
Jeff Liles, artistic director for The Kessler in Oak Cliff, says the venue will also continue requiring masks for employees and patrons.
He cites Biden's recent statement that vaccines should be available to all Americans within the next three months, “so this thing is obviously not going to drag on forever.
“It’s important to stay careful and safe in the meantime,” Liles says. “We will continue with our established protocols even as the situation improves and hope that our patrons will continue to exercise good judgment during this time as well.”
The Kessler hasn’t particularly struggled with noncompliant patrons ("Our patrons have been fantastic and seem happy to comply. No pushback whatsoever," Liles says), and Liles and his team see a greater benefit in continuing to enforce mask-wearing.
"Something is obviously working; the numbers have leveled off and hospitalizations are down," Liles says. "Masks are a big part of that, without question. I think the larger entertainment community recognizes this and realizes that the health and safety of everyone involved is absolutely essential. Two or three months from now things will be dramatically better. Patience, poise and the steadfast continuation of a simple safety protocol will see us through."
Scott Beggs, who owns Deep Ellum music venue Three Links, says he's overall "optimistic" about this year but believes "it’s a little soon and irresponsible to lift the mask mandate until vaccination numbers are higher.
"Three Links was already planning to ease back into doing socially distanced events, and the new orders will not affect our timeline," he says. "We will continue to ask guests and require staff to wear masks until we get to a better point with the vaccine. I think we are real close to better days, and I hope this doesn’t delay that. Service industry and gig workers are ready to — safely — get back to life again, too."
Beggs says anti-maskers are welcome to patronize other establishments.
"Unfortunately, like every business who has tried to be safe, there have been those who have put their selfishness and sense of entitlement on public display," he says. "It’s disappointing, but there are establishments that will make them feel more welcome."
Discontented anti-maskers have already started taking their grievances online with venues that will continue to enforce mask-wearing. Mike Snider, who owns Deep Ellum restaurant and music joint AllGood Cafe, made a recent public Facebook post saying he'd gotten a bad customer review after AllGood announced it would continue requiring masks.
"Within an hour of my post that we are staying with 75% capacity and requiring folks to wear masks, this guy posted us with a 1-star review on Google complaining he can’t come and not wear a mask here. "Go somewhere else, buddy," Snider wrote.
Dance club The Nines, also in Deep Ellum, is anticipating some pushback.
"I’m sure we will see issues. Everyone will," says venue owner Allen Falkner. "We require masks to enter and it’s our hope that it will limit maskless attendees."
Falkner says The Nines will keep its same policies and will continue operating at reduced capacity.
"I still don’t feel that it’s safe to pack people in here," he says.
The Nines has a large terrace that can accommodate socially distant guests outdoors.
"I’m really not expecting a big change," Falkner says. "I’m mostly thankful for the warm weather. Our outdoor deck has lots of airflow, and I feel a lot safer with patrons up there."
Bar-goers wanting to show some face skin have the choice to venture to Fort Worth, where famed country joint Billy Bob's will not require patrons to wear masks.
An update to the concert hall's website on March 3 states: "After the recent announcements from Governor Abbott and Judge Whitley removing the statewide mask mandate and capacity restrictions, Billy Bob’s Texas will no longer require guests to wear masks upon entry."
The message also says that masks, however, "are still highly recommended," and that Billy Bob's "will continue to operate at a limited capacity and keep other safety protocols in place, such as additional hand sanitizing stations and temperature checks for guests, entertainers and staff."
Falkner says he's more concerned with protecting lives than his livelihood.
"My simple response is patrons [over] profits," he says.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.