Houston Businesses Face Dual Challenges Amid Lifting Of Mask Mandate And Capacity Restrictions

Restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 will be lifted Wednesday, and businesses are trying to navigate operating safely.

Bartender Alyssa Dooley makes a cocktail at Mo's Irish Pub, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is lifting business capacity limits and the state's mask mandate starting next week.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Bartender Alyssa Dooley makes a cocktail at Mo’s Irish Pub, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he is lifting business capacity limits and the state’s mask mandate starting Wednesday.

A COVID-19 mask mandate and business occupancy limits are no longer in effect in Texas beginning Wednesday. Now, Houston businesses that have decided to independently enforce those rules have to prepare for what comes next.

Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the coronavirus safety regulations last week, prompting praise from some business owners whose bottom lines have been impacted by the pandemic.

But others are worried about staffing, about the ability to enforce their own rules, and about maskless crowds making their employees sick.
Many restaurants have had to reduce staff during the pandemic, as a result of limited customers dining in doors. That's left managers guessing how many workers will be needed to provide acceptable service on Wednesday.

"Being understaffed is super, super stressful," said Paige Tidwell, 24-year-old assistant manager at Grub Burger Bar in the Memorial area.

"I can't be everywhere. If I don't have enough staff to figure out problems, I can't do everything all at once."

Grub Burger Bar will stick with operating at 75% capacity, but still hired "five-to-seven" servers last week, who were quickly trained at the beginning of this week.

Tidwell said training staff is always a challenge, but hiring more than a handful at one time gives her the opportunity to “weed out” workers who won’t make the cut, while still having new employees who are ready and capable of serving the anticipated crowd.

"Even though we aren't going to 100% capacity, we're getting busier," Tidwell said. "And so we know that people are going to start coming out more, and we just need bodies."

Workers are being trained and prepared — not just for more customers, but customers who may believe it is still their right to go into a store without a mask, even if the store's policy requires one.

Tidwell said she's instructing her servers to tell patrons to put masks on, or risk losing service at the restaurant.

"If they're resisting at that point, I would be called in to talk to the guests, and be the authority," she said. "My servers are not paid to deal with people like that, they're not paid to be yelled at."

The Houston Police Department tweeted a video last week, explaining that businesses have the legal right to still require masks, even though the statewide mandate has been lifted.

HPD Chief Art Acevedo said patrons who remain in a business after being asked to leave are subject to arrest for criminal tresspass.

Tidwell said she hoped that wouldn't be the case in her business, but didn't rule it out in extreme circumstances.

“The only point where the police would get called is if (customers) start getting aggressive, and yelling at my staff,” Tidwell said. “If they become a danger to my staff and customers and are becoming belligerent, at that point, the police would be called.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference where he provided an update to Texas' response to COVID-19, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Austin, Texas.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Austin, Texas. Last week, Abbott lifted COVID-19 regulation mandated masks and limiting occupancy in businesses.

But bars and restauarants are not the only businesses that will be impacted by the change.

A spokesperson for CVS Health said the company hoped the police would never have to be involved in a confrontation regarding masks, and it hoped to be able to handle any conflict in house.

“If a customer is not wearing a mask or face covering, we will ask them to protect themselves and those around us,” said Monica Prinzing.

“For safety reasons, our employees are directed to avoid escalated confrontations with non compliant customers, and to instead help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible.”

The owners of Three Brothers Bakery said they have a no-tolerance policy when it comes to mask wearing, because they can’t afford to have an outbreak in the business.

There, ownership takes it upon themselves to greet non-mask wearers, and tell them they can be served outside if they don’t want to put on a mask.

“I tell everyone, you know, this is for your health and the health of my team,” said owner Janice Jucker. “The customers are here temporarily, they’re walking in and they’re walking out. They must follow the rules.”