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Natalie Wester and her husband were waiting for their appetizer to arrive when the server came to their table, not with the fried jalapeños, but an ultimatum.
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On Sept. 10, the couple left their 4-month-old son, Austin, with his maternal grandmother and went to Hang Time Sports Grill & Bar in Rowlett, Tex., a Dallas suburb — a rare night out for the young parents, Wester told The Washington Post. The plan was to have dinner and a couple of drinks, catch up with friends they hadn’t seen in a while and call it a night.
Instead, they got kicked out in what Wester called a “bizarre” incident because they chose to wear masks to protect Austin, who has cystic fibrosis and is immunocompromised. The restaurant bans customers from wearing masks as part of its dress code, something owner Tom Blackmer said is his right as someone who purchased and has invested in a private business.
While the ban isn’t posted anywhere in writing, the hostess asks everyone who enters with a mask to take it off, Blackmer told The Post.
Wester, 23, said that’s what happened the night they came in, but she thought it was so the hostess could compare their faces to the photos on their IDs, a misunderstanding that may have been exacerbated because loud live music was playing. After they made their way into the restaurant, Wester and her husband, 25-year-old Jose Lopez, put the masks back on, met some friends and ordered drinks and an appetizer.
About 30 minutes later, their server came over and sat next to Wester. She told her that the manager had sent her “because I am nicer than he is. … But this is political and I need you to take your masks off.”
Wester said she informed the server of their son’s disease, which is genetic and can be life-threatening. The server told her they could pay their bill and leave if following the restaurant’s no-mask policy was a problem.
It was a problem. Austin’s doctors have told Wester and Lopez they need to live their lives but also have to be careful about passing along the flu or common cold to their son, let alone covid-19, because he would have a hard time fighting it off.
“We have to be cautious,” she said.
They got their fried jalapeños to go and picked up burgers and Dr. Peppers from Whataburger on the way home.
A couple of hours later, she published a post about the incident to Facebook.
Blackmer backed up Wester’s version of events but said he has the right to refuse service to customers who don’t abide by the restaurant’s dress code. Blackmer said he implemented the ban in April because he doesn’t think masks stop covid-19 from spreading and criminals can use them to get away with a robbery, theft or vandalism in a place where his two adult children work.
“I’m not doing things that put them at risk,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that masks are effective at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. The agency recommends people who are not fully vaccinated to wear them in indoor public places and urges people to consider doing so outdoors where there is the potential for high numbers of covid cases. The CDC also warns that people with cystic fibrosis — which produces a thick mucus that can make moving air in and out of the lungs difficult and increase the chance of infection — could have a higher risk of severe covid symptoms.
The backlash against Blackmer and the restaurant has been swift and fierce, he said, adding that he hasn’t slept in two days since news about Wester’s experience took off.
The restaurant can’t keep its phones charged because they ring constantly. People have flooded the restaurant’s Facebook page with comments, which led Blackmer to briefly take it down. He said someone doxed him on Twitter, leading him to move out of his Dallas apartment into one he’d already rented but hadn’t moved to.
“This town is trying to burn me down,” he said. “They are just vicious.”
But, Blackmer added, he doesn’t plan on ending the ban and doesn’t regret enforcing it on Sept. 10, when Wester and Lopez were in his restaurant.
“This is right,” he said, “and if we don’t have a business next week, we’ll be fine.”
Wester has also gotten some blowback. Strangers scoured her Facebook page and found a photo of her not wearing a mask in August while taking her mom to see a Chris Stapleton concert. Wester said she wore a mask inside the venue until they got to their seats and decided to take some pictures. The photos don’t prove she’s a “liar.”
“[M]y husband and I have done our best in a really difficult time to stay happy, healthy, and sane, and us wanting to wear a mask to feel safer at Hang Time was part of that,” Wester wrote in an email to The Post. “I don’t think that going to a concert, or taking some photos without a mask, negate any part of our experience” at Hang Time.
Wester finished her email: “Tom has stated that he does not care for masks nor believes that they work — I am confused why me wearing one (or not wearing one) in any setting would matter to them?”