After Texas governor Greg Abbott said that he would end the state's mask mandate on Wednesday, March 10, many businesses had to decide whether or not they would continue asking customers to wear masks.
For Arnaldo Richards, chef and co-owner of Pico's, a Mexican restaurant in Houston, it was an easy choice: He decided that customers would still be asked to wear masks until more people were vaccinated.
"We have the right to refuse service, and we're going to continue to what we think is best," said Richards, who has operated the restaurant for 37 years. "We're not out of the woods; not enough people have been vaccinated. … My opinion is until we get to 70 to 75% of people vaccinated, then maybe we can figure it out. We've been doing this for 11 months, why quit?"
However, the decision led to threats and inappropriate behavior from customers. In one instance, an Instagram commentator said that he would call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the restaurant; the comment was first reported by the Washington Post.
"This gentleman was in disagreement with our policy, because we were going against the governor and the mandate, and he was basically telling us 'You know, the governor has the ability to send (ICE) to check green cards," Richards recalled; the comment has since been deleted. "Why would he do something like that? Just because we're a Mexican restaurant? I thought he was highly racist, and maybe if this restaurant were owned by Anglo(-Saxons), he would have never done that."
While the mask mandate in the state doesn't officially end until Wednesday, Richards said that he has already had to ask customers to put on masks, recounting one night where a man with his family refused to return to his car and get a mask. When he was offered a mask by the restaurant, he put it in his mouth.
"He put it in his mouth, just bit on it, and he wanted to walk in like that," Richards said. "He was just trying to be a pain. And his wife had her mask on and she said 'Well, we feel very strongly about not wearing them.' And I said 'I'm sorry, but I feel very strongly about my customers wearing it to protect my employees and the rest of the people, so please do us a favor.'"
Richards said that eventually, the man did put on the mask properly. Customers are only asked to wear their masks when they first enter the restaurant and until they are seated at the table.
"We have a very low rate of people getting the virus at the restaurant," said Richards. "As a matter of fact, for the past four months, I don't think we have had anyone at the restaurant have to quarantine because of the virus."
Richards noted that just he and "three or four" of his 82 employees had been vaccinated so far. In Texas, restaurant workers are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, so Richards said only people who meet age requirements or have eligible medical conditions have been able to get the shot.
Richards said that he understands that the governor wants to give people the choice between wearing masks or not, but said that as a restaurant owner, he also has to take measures to protect his staff, customers and the health of his business.
"It's a matter of choice. If you don't want to come in, if you don't want to wear a mask … You can go elsewhere," he said. "I find it very hard to believe that any other restaurant is going to allow people to come in without a mask, or have their employees not wearing a mask. It's a death sentence. If you do it, you're not going to have a lot of business."
Other restaurants and businesses have already said they will require masks despite the end of the mask mandate: Chains like Target and Kroger have said they will enforce mask-wearing in stores, and McDonald's said that they would not open their indoor dining rooms in Texas at this time. The chains will also maintain similar restrictions in Mississippi, which also ended its mask mandate last week.
Despite a few negative interactions with some customers, Richards said that the support from the community has far outweighed the negative reactions. The Instagram comment about calling ICE was deleted after many leapt to Richards' defense, and many customers have been purchasing donation meals on the restaurant's website which are directed to first responders.
"The support from the community has been overwhelming," Richards said. "It's incredible. There's always going to be people that are trying to make a point."
"I've been in this for 37 years, and we have gone through a whole lot of different things … But this has been the worst," Richards continued. "I go every single day keeping my business open and my employees employed and my customers fed, hoping this is going to go away soon, but if we don't take the appropriate measures to contain it, this is not going to go away. … I made a commitment to my employees back at the beginning that I was going to keep the restaurant open until I couldn't, so we need to make sure that this goes away."