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Reopening Austin Restaurants at Full Capacity Before Vaccinating Their Workers Is Irresponsible

Service workers across the city — and the state — have been abandoned by Gov. Abbott’s undoing of safety measures while COVID-19 is still a significant threat

A masked waiter brings food to a masked diner sitting at a table
The mask mandate will be lifted next week in Texas, but individual businesses can still require that employees and customers wear masks
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

On March 2 — Texas Independence Day — Gov. Greg Abbott announced that all COVID-19 restrictions for businesses and people including indoor capacity limits, social distancing measures, and mask requirements would be lifted on Wednesday, March 10. This came during the same week of the anniversary of Texas’s first official case of the novel coronavirus, which has led to the deaths of over 40,000 Texans so far.

“Everybody who wants to work should have that opportunity,” Abbott said during the press conference. “Every business that wants to be open should be open.”

This premature reopening will put Texans, including service workers, at greater risk of catching and spreading the virus. While, yes, businesses are allowed to enact their own rules, it still sends the signal that everything appears to be “okay” in Texas — that everyone is “safe” when that is far from the truth. Another potential surge is always around the corner, especially when the state doesn’t implement basic recommendations from public health experts such as social distancing and masks. It’s irresponsible.

Although vaccine rollouts are gaining steam across the country, over 90 percent of the Texas population has yet to be vaccinated. These policy issues are compounded by the fact that most restaurant workers within the state are still not eligible for the vaccine unless they already fall in the allowable categories at this time. The state is only vaccinating health care workers, people in long-term care facilities, people 65 years or older, and people 16 years or older who have specific high-risk conditions; a day after the press conference, the Texas Department of Health Services added teachers, school staff, and child care workers to this list.

Many Austin restaurateurs and chefs didn’t expect, let alone welcome, Abbott’s order. Matthew Bolick, the co-founder of Better Half, Little Brother, and other restaurants, was blunt about the dangerous situation that the state put service workers in. “We are still in a pandemic and, unlike Abbott, we are working as hard as we can to keep our staff and guests safe,” he says. “It’s completely fucked for ol’ Greg to put us in this position. Sure is gonna be a sad sight over at Bob Woody and Brandon Cash’s garbage spots,” referring to bars that have been either issued citations or seen violating safety measures. “It’s completely heartbreaking. Wear a fucking mask.”

“This decision is reckless and based on no known science,” says Adam Orman, co-owner of Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro and a leading member of local business advocacy group Good Work Austin, which has been advocating for safe restaurant reopenings and the rights of service workers throughout the pandemic. “It flies in the face of everything the CDC has said. It flies in the face of everything the national coronavirus task force has said.”

“Masks and social distance are accepted around the world as ways to prevent transmission,” he continues. “And we’re still very much in a place where it is being transmitted. We’re not even close to a place where this should be an option.” (The Texas positivity rate is currently 13.46 percent; the CDC recommends a rate of less than 5 percent for two weeks before reopening businesses.)

Michael Fojtasek, the owner and executive chef of Southern restaurant Olamaie, was hoping for an announcement allowing service workers and educators to get the vaccine. “When [Abbott] announced that we were going to take our masks off and pretend like COVID is over, I was in shock and horrified,” he says. His Instagram post declaring that “reopening Texas without vaccinating hospitality workers is murder” was shared widely by people that day.

“I’m still very disappointed that [Abbott] would make the decision to remove these protections against CDC guidelines,” Valerie Ward, the co-founder of vegan ice cream shop Sweet Ritual, tells Eater. The CDC still recommends masks when people are around others.

As soon as the mandate was announced, many Austin restaurants announced they were going to keep their mask requirements, capacity caps, and social-distancing measures, despite the executive order.

The largest missing component of the governor’s orders is the fact that service workers still don’t know when they’ll be eligible for the vaccine, even though the order places these people at greater risk. And even if the state adds service workers to the vaccination list tomorrow, it doesn’t solve the issue that appointments are still difficult to procure, and the currently available vaccines require two doses at least three weeks apart.

“They’re the ones who have to be there every day interacting with the public,” says Ward of her employees. “So we most of all want to protect them.”

Fermín Núñez, the executive chef of East Austin restaurant Suerte, believes the reopening order should have been a well-planned rollout that takes place over several months, not a last-minute decree that leaves businesses scrambling. “That, to me, sounds like a very young Fermín trying to take a test in high school and not doing his homework,” he says. In his opinion, there should’ve been a plan to make sure the people who would interact with potential maskless people get vaccinated before reopening businesses fully.

Not addressing restaurant worker vaccinations is “a huge missed opportunity to do the right thing” for the industry, Fojtasek says. “And it’s unfortunate because we are so close to getting back to business. We just don’t want our staff to be in danger.”

“I left my country to be in a country that was supposed to be better,” says Núñez, who was raised in Mexico, where, “as Mexicans, we’ve always known that the government is not usually going to have the best interest in us. And it’s very shocking to me to see that happening here.”

A man in a facial mask and black hat and apron holding up a sign that reads: “Es Gonna Be Okay” in a restaurant
Fermín Núñez holding up Suerte’s poster that says it’s going to be okay

Fojtasek has been pushing for hospitality workers' vaccinations for the past several months. He has been engaging with lobbying group the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) in this effort, which, to his experience, has been helpful. He believes that restaurant workers won’t be added to the current 1b vaccination phase (educators and child care workers were just added this week), but “there’s a very good chance” they’ll be part of the next eligibility group.

On the other hand, Orman found that TRA hasn’t been helping to make conditions safer for service workers. The group “has not been has not been preaching caution at any step, and at any point during this,” he says. The organization’s press release commending the governor’s order thanked him “for outlining a plan today that will lift costly business restrictions for most of the state,” but did not mention vaccines for service workers.

The governor’s orders put the onus of public safety on the restaurant staffers. Businesses are technically allowed to enact their own rules regarding masks, capacity limits, and social-distancing measures. But this means that service workers are now the offensive, trying to keep themselves and others safe. Removing mandates further places service workers in potentially dangerous situations where they will have to deal with threatening confrontations with individuals who are unwilling to respect the rules of individual establishments over the word of the governor.

“It just sets up this combativeness that is nasty and unnecessary,” Orman says. He points out that the employees in the city have neither state-mandated livable wages nor health insurance. “So you’re asking employees who you think to deserve to be making $2.13 an hour with no sick leave and no health care,” and then placing them “indoors maskless with people drinking — it is so cruel, heartless, unconscionable, and dangerous.”

Aaron Kolitz, the president and chairman of the board of directors of the United States Bartenders Guild’s Austin chapter, shared with Eater a letter the group sent to city and state officials concerning the order. He expressed how many of the Texas members are afraid to go into work next week, terrified of getting sick themselves, having to deal with dangerous customers, and a potential future spike of cases that could suddenly shutter businesses again for the third time. “I have multiple members who have been assaulted by people not wanting to wear a mask,” he wrote. “One member was punched in the face by a guest who didn’t want to wear his last summer.” He acknowledge that, while businesses can issue their own rules, it’s not enough. “That does not stop customers from getting angry when asked to put on a mask; doesn’t stop people from not caring about the health and well being of others around them.” He asks that the city prioritize vaccines for hospitality workers before the state reopens fully.

This isn’t the first time the governor risked the lives of Texans under the guise of supporting the economy. Texas was one of the first states to start reopening businesses after stricter lockdowns in May 2020; soon after, the state saw a surge of cases and hospitalizations. Abbott even expressed regret at letting bars reopen too early at the time.

Reopening right now with a lack of safety measures doesn’t help businesses make money, since there’s always the potential next surge of cases, something that has clearly happened both times the state has reopened businesses. “This is weakening our economic recovery,” Orman says. Likewise, Texans who will feel unsafe being around others who potentially want to remain maskless will stay home and not spend money.

On the business end, reopening fully “doesn’t make any financial sense,” to Fojtasek, when it comes to the federal employee retention tax credit program, through which businesses that earn less revenue now than they did in 2019 and 2020 would be able to receive tax incentives. “If you jump your revenue right now,” he explains, something that he predicts “most of the big operators that [Abbott] probably wants to support” will do, “they’re going to leave a ton of money on the table.”

“We set ourselves up to be protected no matter what,” explains Fojtasek, whose restaurant is currently functioning as a takeout biscuit shop, “and this evolution doesn’t affect us.”

“We’re just tired,” he adds. “The storm was not even three weeks ago, and we received no help there. Our mayor hasn’t helped our hospitality community at all, nor the city council nor the state government. We’ve gotten no support at all, and we’re exhausted. Everyone needs a vacation.”

Núñez shares Fojtasek’s sentiments and emphasizes that people have to remain vigilant for now. “We’ve gone through a lot of bad things in the past 12 months. At least now, we’re a little bit closer to seeing the light than we were at the beginning of this, but we’re not there yet. It’s a marathon. We can’t just stop now and hope that it’ll eventually just get better now. We’re almost there.”