This was Texas’ first weekend without Covid-19 limits. Here’s how it went for business owners
(CNN) — For about a year, Texas businesses have done whatever they could to stay afloat. As Covid-19 ravaged the state and the country, they pivoted to takeout service, operated their dining rooms at reduced capacities and required masks for their employees and their customers, all according to state rules.
Last week they were finally given the chance to return to normal, after the governor issued an executive order lifting the state’s mask mandate and allowing businesses to reopen at 100% capacity.
But their approaches vary: While some have relaxed their rules a bit, others chose to continue requiring masks and restricted the occupancy of their dining rooms.
Just as varied as the approaches were their experiences this weekend, the first without Covid-19 limits on businesses — some saw business improve, others said things stayed much the same. One was the target of racist vandalism.
Here’s what some Texas businesses told CNN about their first weekend since restrictions were lifted.
Mike Nguyen, San Antonio
Sunday morning, Mike Nguyen discovered his San Antonio restaurant, Noodle Tree, had been vandalized with racist messages after he’d appeared in local news outlets and on CNN to criticize the decision to lift the mask mandate.
“Kung flu,” “go back 2 China” and “hope U die,” were written in red spray paint, according to photos he shared with CNN.
“Honestly, to me it’s a piece of cloth that goes over your face,” he said. “I don’t understand why they took it this far, but I guess they wanted to send a message that masks are ridiculous, or whatever.”
The San Antonio Police Department is investigating the vandalism of the Noodle Tree restaurant as a case of “criminal mischief,” a spokesperson told CNN in an email Monday.
Aside from the vandalism, Nguyen said the weekend went well. He chose to continue requiring masks for customers unless they’re seated at their tables. And he’s capped his dining room at about 60% to 70%, rather than fully reopening.
Before the restaurant was vandalized, Noodle Tree actually doubled its business compared to last weekend, Nguyen said, calling it one of the restaurant’s “busiest weekends.” He couldn’t say whether the increase was due to the lifting of restrictions or support from the community.
Nguyen said whoever vandalized his restaurant doesn’t represent Texans and they don’t represent San Antonians. Sunday, Nguyen told CNN people had been approaching the business throughout the morning to help clean up.
“I’m very humbled,” he said. “But I’m not surprised. This is what we do as Texans, this is what we do as San Antonians — we help each other out.”
He said that was also evident in how many Texans are still wearing masks, despite the relaxed restrictions.
“It kind of shows you that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can go back to what we used to be,” he said. “That’s encouraging.”
“I’m just hoping we don’t go backwards,” he added.
Lisa Dickinson, Fort Worth
Lisa Dickinson, the manager of a store in Fort Worth called Parts Unknown, said business was great this weekend. Saturday, the store actually exceeded the business it had done at the same time in 2019, she said. “It was a really good day.”
The store is not requiring masks of its customers, Dickinson said, a decision that was made by its corporate office. But most of the customers who came in this weekend wore masks anyway, she said.
“Nobody was upset with the ones that didn’t and nobody was upset with the ones that did,” she said. “Everybody minded their own business and had a good time.”
A number of customers this weekend were between the ages of 50 and 70, Dickinson said, and they told her they’d been “hunkered down in their houses for the last year because of the pandemic.”
“They felt comfortable getting out,” she said, in some cases because they’d been able to get vaccinated. “This is like the first time they had ventured out in a while. They chose to come to Fort Worth, they grabbed a hotel, they do some dinner, they do some shopping.”
Dickinson said people are smart enough to make their own decisions about wearing the masks. But she recognized the pandemic isn’t over and said she hoped people would be “sensible” and not congregate in large groups.
“But after what I witnessed this weekend, the good people of Texas … they respect what they need to do, and I don’t think we need to be told what we to do or hide in our houses,” she said. “So I am very hopeful for the future.”
Nicola Blaque, San Antonio
Chef Nicola Blaque owns two restaurants in San Antonio. One of them, Mi Roti, which she opened during the pandemic, is in a San Antonio food hall and the property manages the Covid-19 restrictions there. That means no indoor dining and masks for everyone.
Despite the restrictions, business Saturday was “really, really good,” Blaque told CNN.
“The restrictions at that restaurant are very strong,” she said, “and we didn’t have any backlash or anybody not following the rules.”
As for her other restaurant, The Jerk Shack, business was largely the same this weekend as it has been during the pandemic. Though the restaurant has outdoor dining, Blaque has continued with takeout service and still encourages social distancing.
But following the governor’s order, Blaque decided to give customers the choice to wear masks at The Jerk Shack — a decision that earned her a couple of one-star reviews from customers who were upset she wasn’t requiring them.
Blaque said that decision was mainly for the safety of her employees. She didn’t want to put them in a position where they might have to enforce masks with customers who weren’t cooperative.
“I’m a minority, so 2020 was not the easiest for Black restaurants,” she said. “It was not just the pandemic happening, but other things affecting our business. So we just had to make the right decisions so we didn’t receive so much backlash and so much tension.”
In the past, they’ve been the targets of racial slurs and threats, Blaque said. Someone once busted out the windows of her food truck in front of her restaurant.
“Even the thought or the threat of violence — it’s not worth my employees’ safety,” she said.
Ryan Lachaine, Houston
For months, the restaurant staff at Riel in Houston have played it by the book when it comes to Covid-19 safety, chef and partner Ryan Lachaine told CNN. The restaurant has been scrubbed down so many times that the varnish is coming off some of the seats.
But given the first chance in a year to open at 100% capacity, Lachaine and his business partners made the tough decision to stay the course. This weekend Riel was still operating at 50% capacity and masks were still a must, Lachaine said. As a result, the restaurant didn’t see much of a change.
“It’s business as usual. It was pretty much a regular Friday and Saturday night for us,” he said Sunday, explaining that with reduced occupancy, the restaurant was as busy as it could be.
Lachaine compared running the restaurant to walking a tightrope, balancing the desire to bring in revenue with prioritizing the safety of his employees.
“In my opinion, you can’t have one without the other,” he said. “If I don’t have any staff because they’re sick or scared to go to work, I can’t produce food for people to come in. If I don’t have patrons eating, I can’t pay my staff.”
As much as Lachaine would like to return to normal, he said he wants to wait until his employees are fully vaccinated.
“That’s my prerequisite,” he said.
Arnaldo Richards, Houston
After 12 months operating at a loss, Arnaldo Richards, chef and owner of Pico’s Restaurant in Houston, said “business has been incredible” this weekend.
Richards, whose restaurant and employees were the target of threats after he announced customers would still have to wear masks, attributed the rise in business to community support, not relaxed Covid-19 restrictions. “Our sales have increased tremendously,” Richards said, since the governor made his announcement.
“We’ve had people coming in and saying, I saw this on social media or I saw this thing on TV and we’re here to support you,” he said. Richards also has not reopened his dining room to 100% capacity, sticking to about 70%. At that level, he can still safely keep customers socially distanced, he said.
When the governor announced his order, Richards said he was initially excited, thinking about how it would stimulate the economy. But he chose to keep his employees, customers and community safe by keeping the restrictions in place.
Overall, Richards said he was optimistic about the future, based on how members of the community have reacted since Abbott’s order went into effect. “(It’s) really not making people go out and be irresponsible,” he said.
“The governor said we could make the choice,” he said, “but it’s up to the community, it’s up to the individual, it’s up to the business to be responsible. Because after 12 months you should know how to protect yourself.”
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