Thursday, September 21, 2023 Sep 21, 2023
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St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Break Dovetail With Lax Masking Rules at Bars

Some places have eased mask-wearing policies for guests. Dallas County officials say it's too early for a victory lap. Public health experts nervously watch the numbers.
By |
Bret Redman

The Lower Greenville St. Patrick’s Day parade had long been canceled; the city made the call back in January, which was announced by Mark Cuban. Of course that didn’t stop throngs in shamrock green to descend on Lower Greenville this past weekend. While folks didn’t show out in historically high numbers—usually in the realm of 120,000—the sidewalks of Greenville Avenue were still mobbed. Patios were packed. Masks appeared rare.

After Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate on March 10, some restaurants and bars relaxed masking policies for patrons. Those include Stan’s Blue Note and Truck Yard, two Lower Greenville go-tos that now “encourage” rather than require masking. With St. Patrick’s Day and spring break colliding, it’s a green-hued cocktail of risk.

Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, says we’ve seen this before. Gatherings over Memorial Day weekend and other holidays preceded increases in infections.

“We’re absolutely concerned about potential increase in cases and hospitalizations. We’ve been doing well for past couple of weeks but we really need to stay vigilant,” he said. “If people relax too much on this, it can go back up. We’re still doing a lot with vaccinations, but still, a significant percentage of people are not yet vaccinated.”

As of March 16, just 12.4 percent of Dallas County residents were fully vaccinated. Crowds of the younger demographic haven’t yet aged into vaccine eligibility just yet. If you aren’t 50 or older, you must be a healthcare worker, involved in childcare, or have an underlying disease that makes you more vulnerable to the conronavirus. Essential workers don’t get any special prioritization for vaccines under the state’s current guidance.

Meanwhile, the region still isn’t receiving enough vaccine to meet demand. Last weekend, Dallas County ran out of allotment which left the Fair Park vaccine hub dormant for two days. 

Britt Philyaw, co-founder and executive director of Heard That Foundation, knows “people are working to get people vaccinated… I think they’re just doing the best they can,” she says. But she is still deeply worried about getting restaurant industry workers vaccinated faster.

An oft-cited study out of California showed that the pandemic has been especially deadly for essential workers. Line cooks experienced the most excess death in 2020, followed by agriculture workers (risk of death was 30 to 60 percent higher than a non-pandemic, or normal, year). The study also found that death rates for people of color, such as Black, Hispanic, or Asian employees who work in those service sectors, were especially high.

“I know those numbers are in California, but I’m not surprised,” says Philyaw. “I think that there’s a lot missing from that story: racial issues, socio-economic issues, access to health care, ability to take time off. Like any other conversation about COVID, it’s layered with things.”

Philyaw has spoken to industry workers who were had recovered from COVID, yet quickly got behind on bills. A spouse who’s the main caretaker caught COVID from their partner, and then had to be hospitalized. The breadwinner had to choose between going to work or taking care of their kid at home.

“We think it’s a misstep to not prioritize vaccines for hospitality workers and hope Texas opens that up soon,” says Philyaw.

In February, she was plotting ways the Dallas-based nonprofit she runs alongside Will Salisbury could help. Philyaw initially wanted to set up a clinic for restaurant workers. Heard That began as a nonprofit that raised money for hospitality workers with urgent medical concerns. Once the pandemic hit, it began providing meals, essential goods, and more help for furloughed or unemployed industry workers.

“Another thing that, you know, we talked about internally is undocumented workers, especially people that work the line behind the scenes, that we feel like are going to be kind of lost in the gaps,” Philyaw says.

“I’ve reached out to anyone I could,” she continued. “Dallas County… like, the next step is just to like, call and start pestering people to like, get someone on the horn. I just want them to know that, hey, we really want to get hospitality workers vaccinated; they are a priority.”

She believes essential grocery workers should be prioritized too. The Texas Department of State Health Services told that it plans “to announce the next group of people eligible later this month.” School and childcare personnel were most recently added to the next eligibility group.

“We just don’t want people to fall through the cracks—often like shift workers do,” says Philyaw. As of right now, Heard That’s vaccination clinic hasn’t come to fruition. “Mainly what we’ve been dealing with is regrouping after the storm…bills, lost wages.”

Last month’s winter storms are still taking a toll.

Meanwhile, as partygoers slammed lime Jell-O shots, the county is hoping to put shots in the arms of residents. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has argued that the state of Texas began diverting doses from urban counties after FEMA arrived with its own supply. Jenkins estimates more than 103,000 vaccines have been steered away from the county since FEMA began assisting, reported WFAA. It’s why Fair Park was closed last weekend.

“We have allocation for second doses…but we have very limited number of first doses available,” says Huang, who is also concerned about more contagious variants known to be circulating the community right now.

“We’re going in the right direction, but it’s dependent on masks and avoiding crowds and staying distant,” says Huang. “It’s too early to let up. It’s not time to declare victory.”

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