What It Means for Dallas Restaurants to ‘Consider’ Face Masks

Masked at St. Pete's Dancing Marlin in Deep Ellum
Masked at St. Pete's Dancing Marlin in Deep Ellum Pete Zotos
Over the next month, being optimistic, would you leave a restaurant or turn your back on a to-go order if the employees aren’t wearing face coverings?

March 25 — a little over a week after the city of Dallas closed all bars and prevented restaurants from offering in-house dining — local businessman Mark Cuban was asked on CNBC when he thought it would be safe to send people back to work. His answer was cautionary. 

“How companies respond to that very question is going to define their brand for decades. If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company. If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company,” Cuban said. 

Fast forward to last week. A little more than a month after that interview, the state released Gov. Greg Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas Report. It stated that on May 1, restaurants could reopen at 25% capacity. Further, the report asks restaurant workers to “consider wearing non-medical grade face masks.”

Already it’s clear that some aren’t considering it despite Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins repeatedly telling people to wear masks when at essential businesses. 

April 26, the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association shared a post from lawyer David Denny, wagging his finger: 

"Dallas County has received reports that local restaurants are not following all of the requirements of the Stay-At-Home Order. Specifically, we have confirmed that some restaurants are allowing customers to eat their “take-out” food on their outdoor seating, which defeats the purpose of prohibiting indoor seating as these individuals are still congregating in large groups without proper social distancing. Additionally, we have received reports of restaurant employees not wearing masks while working.”

Dallas County restaurants, we're hearing from the health dept: "Dallas County has received reports that local...

Posted by David Denney on Sunday, April 26, 2020

Meanwhile, cases of COVID-19 are rising: 187 new cases were reported Friday in Dallas County, the highest daily total yet. Jenkins tweeted that despite the governor’s orders to reopen, he strongly recommends everyone take advice from the CDC and local health authorities. 

On Friday, some Dallas restaurants reopened for in-house dining at 25% of their full capacity. Certain establishments have enough space that allows them to seat guests six feet apart. Spots with patios seem to be more inclined to give it a go. 

It appears that a lot of places, though, have been holding off on opening.

But, whether a spot decides to open at 25% capacity or just stick to carry-out, since the state's rules supersede local mandates, restaurants will also have the option of asking their employees to wear face masks. 

Going back to Cuban’s statement, when it comes to face coverings, the big question now is how will Dallas diners respond to those who choose not to wear face masks?

“I don’t want to be that place that didn’t wear masks and ruined it for everyone." – Pete Zotos

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“There’s a lot to unpack here,” says Brian Luscher, who previously owned The Grape for 12 years and is now the director of culinary operations for 33 Restaurant Group. “By [the state] not making masks mandatory and saying you'd like for people to wear them, it absolves them from guilt. 

“But, it doesn’t absolve the operator of the guilt after someone catches it at their restaurant.”

Luscher says, in his opinion, it’s premature to not enforce a face covering policy at restaurants. 

The group of restaurants that he oversees, which includes Taverna Rossa, Cadillac Pizza Pub, Union Bear and Heritage Pizza and Tap Room, didn't open in-house dining Friday. They’ll wait until they feel safe and in control. 

“We want to capture the confidence of our guests,” Luscher says. "Clay Jenkins has done a fantastic job. He's made health- and welfare-based decisions. And for the same reasons, we should be wearing masks."

Pete Zotos, owner of St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin, a staple in Deep Ellum for more than 20 years, is struggling with the same issues.

“If you’re showing the world that you’re trying to be safe and save your livelihood, people will probably be good. We wipe down everything, we wipe down knobs, we wear masks all day,” Zotos says. 

It’s not just customers he’s worried about; he’s also concerned about his staff. 

“I have people that work for me who I didn’t think were scared of anything,” Zotos says, “but they’re scared of this.” 

Flipping the issue around, Zotos says his employees notice when customers walk in without face masks, and it makes them nervous. 

And while he can’t wait to have a full bar and patio again, he’s hesitant. 

“I’m one of the old salts,” Zotos said last week. “I don’t want to be that place that didn’t wear masks and ruined it for everyone. Then, I’m dead.” 

Thursday, St. Pete's announced they would be open the following day.

For Dallas restaurants, it remains to be seen if customers will remember who put their safety above profits. Some will likely be remembered, and perhaps celebrated, for bucking the request to wear face masks. 

“We’re all voluntarily or involuntarily participating in a lottery,” Luscher says. “It’s selfish if it's impacting someone else’s life. There are too many unanswered questions.”
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.