Patrons and employees of Austin restaurants and bars are now required to wear masks, per the recent city order, in light of the ongoing increasing COVID-19 surge in the city and throughout Texas. Several Austin restaurants, which already implemented their own face-covering policies beforehand, shared customer reactions to this requirement, which tended to be adversarial.
Enforcing mask policies has proven difficult for many in Austin. “We do have the right to enforce a mask policy as a business,” explained Olivia Guerra O’Neal, owner of Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop, “though we have zero support from the government which leaves us open to liability from plague enthusiasts,” referring to people who don’t wear masks. She continued: “Governor Abbott has left small business in the dust with zero support on this issue.“
To slow the spread of COVID-19, experts still recommend wearing masks while dining out at restaurants when not eating, when in common areas, and when speaking to a server; most Austin restaurants already had implemented face mask policies. Some places, like Dia’s Market, reported that the vast majority of patrons comply with individual mask policies. Dia’s has received support from its customers for its obvious mask requirement policy (a sign clearly noting “no mask, no entry, thank you for understanding”), and hasn’t experienced angry customers.
However, there are still other restaurants that have been dealing with irate customers displeased by face masks requirements. “The negative experiences may not be frequent,” said Joel Fried, owner and chef of Tex-Mex restaurant Eldorado Cafe, “but they sure do occur more than we want.”
Eldorado, which is currently open for curbside service only, requires that anyone who enters the building — vendors and staff, since customers aren’t allowed inside — wear a mask. Despite this, he reported that customers have yelled at staff, left the restaurant without ordering, or even tried to bully their way past the barricade surrounding the front door. “There is no way I want my staff to have to become mask police based on what we have seen,” said Fried.
Evans and Brian Almaraz, co-owners of downtown dance bar Coconut Club, require customers to wear masks whenever they’re away from their tables. They report that most patrons are respectful of the policy, but some respond poorly: mocking the rule, refusing to wear their masks, threatening lawsuits, and, in one instance, punching a manager.
Over at East Austin bar and Southern kitchen the Cavalier, owner Rachelle Fox estimated that 25 percent of guests have to be reminded of the mask policy: that customers have to wear masks when placing orders, when they’re in any common area, and when they are not at their tables (only the outdoor patio is open for dine-in service). She estimated about three to five parties per week leave and do not return. One staff member also reportedly had to handle a caller who asked if novel coronavirus was “even still a thing.”
LeAnn Mueller and Ali Clem, co-owners of La Barbecue, reported similar stories of customers rolling their eyes, making passive-aggressive remarks, or turning away altogether. Currently, customers order at the window counter or preorder online for takeaway or patio seating. (La Barbecue shares its space with Quickie Pickie, which is open for in-person shopping and requires that customers wear masks when inside of the building.) Mueller and Clem are holding firm on their policy of mandatory masks in the building, and they’ve had to prevent customers from attempting to enter the building to order smoked meats from their counter.
“We are not backing down from this, especially with the spike,” Mueller and Clem shared with Eater via email. “The health of our staff and customers are of the utmost importance to us.”
Face masks are still only recommended, not required, throughout Texas. Before the Austin order was issued, city and county officials weren’t allowed to issue requirements and penalties surrounding face masks. However, local businesses were able to implement and enforce their own facial covering policies. This week, because of a loophole discovered by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, local authorities can issue their own requirements that put the burden of face mask requirements and enforcements on the businesses, which would face potential fines for non-compliance.
Fox believes that requiring that people wear face masks contributes to the greater good of the city: “It is our responsibility — not just as business owners, but as fellow humans — to help keep our community safe.”
Update, June 22, 11:00 a.m. This article, originally published on Thursday, June 18, has been updated to include comments from Coconut Club.