Thursday, October 6, 2022 Oct 6, 2022
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The Governor Turned Dallas Restaurants Into Enforcers

A Dallas dining scene not ready to do away with the mask mandate reels as its situation changes yet again.
By |
Bret Redman
Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to eliminate the mandate that has kept restaurant capacity limited and masks secured to faces sparked concern and baffled a restaurant community that was taken off guard by the sudden evaporation of health-minded measures. Next Wednesday, the statewide order disappears. It marks a shift of responsibility to business owners who will now determine and enforce their own rules. It puts restaurant owners—providers of hospitality—in the precarious position of enforcer.

Immediately, restaurateurs reacted with a flurry of Instagram posts.

“I believe in business and safety. I am here to try to protect our people and my long term interests. For my sake, I am not reopening our dining room for at least another month at @whiskcrepes and until I feel like it. [smiley face emoji],” wrote Julien Eelsen, owner of Whisk Crepes, in a caption.

The post itself—“This week we are still opening 0% of our dining room”—could not be clearer. Eelsen underlined what the business is offering, from patio dining to curbside pickup, catering to provisions packages. Restaurateurs have had to be nimble—and vigilant. The state is loosening its reins. Businesses now have to be firm, without being able to point to a statewide ordinance.

Andrew Savoie, the chef-owner of Resident Taqueria, posted an image of himself donning a mask, with the caption: “Masks on Please!” This followed a post Tuesday that began “I know we are all eager for this to be over …,” but asked that customers still wear masks. The dining room opening will be patient and gradual. The post received almost 880 likes, hundreds more than the usual average, which peaks near 150.

Even small pick-up-only businesses like Moon Child Vegan Cakes wrote: “Texas may have lifted the mask mandate, but our bakery hasn’t. Please continue to sport those stylish masks when picking up your orders. Thank you!” Baker Amaris Riddle obliquely draws attention to something that has become a norm. With our collections of fashion statements, we’ve established a semblance of equilibrium.

It’s stirring the pot again.

Nick & Sam’s opened up the first weekend that the governor allowed restaurants to seat diners.

Crushed from Valentine’s Day cancelations, reeling from the snow storms that blanketed the state, this is the latest turmoil for restaurants that have had to reinvent themselves for a year. In an uneasy time, now they’re facing mask burning and a public that may be less willing to go into their establishments. The debate, which shouldn’t be a debate at all, is back.

Restaurants felt they “were hitting our stride to maintain and survive. And I feel like lifting the mask mandate is pulling the rug out from under us. [Forcing us] to pick up a fight that we shouldn’t have to fight,” says Aaron Gross, who owns MoMo Italian Kitchen in far north Dallas with his wife Wende Stevenson.

Hence restaurateurs’ impulse to immediately establish themselves.

Immediate reactions varied.

Peja Krstic of Mot Hai Ba and Ichi Ni San said he laughed in disbelief and then cried. He has had a reprieve from rent, having closed his Victory Park Mot Hai Ba location due to dwindling traffic. “Immediately, I get a call from the landlord: ‘We’re at 100 percent, you gotta start doing this.’” But “there’s no accumulation of people,” he says.

The mandate may be lifted, but that doesn’t mean diners are going to come out.

Many restaurateurs believe relaxing mitigation efforts will bring no upside. Nor do they think the timing is right. Many offered that it seemed foolhardy to open at 100 percent capacity and do away with masks when Dallas’ vaccination rates hover at 8 percent. Why couldn’t it have waited? May, June—we were almost there, many said.

“A year into this, we’re so close. We can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Jill Grobowsky Bergus, the owner of Lockhart Smokehouse in Bishop Arts. “People are just starting to feel a little bit more comfortable coming out. Let’s not squish everybody in together.”

“I wanna take my wife out to dinner. I wanna get on a plane again. But holy shit, opening it up [like this]” baffles restaurateur Brooks Anderson, who co-owns Boulevardier, Rapscallion, Hillside Tavern, and Veritas Wine Room. “A little bit of patience might have helped.”

Many fear we’re not prepared psychologically. Yes, we have pent up longing, and the economy needs stimulating, but we have scar tissue. Many venues are not opening at 100 percent, especially small ones, because it seems unfathomable to place diners and employees at further risk. But Parigi owner Janice Provost also points out “it’s gonna be a little while” before everything feels “normal.”

“There’s some shock, there’s some trauma,” she said. “It’s not like you can just turn a switch on and this is all over and we’re ready to go back to normal.”

Most are tip-toeing in. They’re also expecting conflicts with customers.

“What I’m nervous about is the folks who don’t want to wear a mask. It’s not pretty for anybody,” says Bergus.

Provost already dealt with that. A customer entered and refused to put on a mask. At Asian Mint on Oak Lawn, owner Nikky Phinyawatana says a customer entered and proclaimed, “Didn’t you see the news? We’re not wearing masks!”

Restaurateurs have a year of horror stories. But at least they’ve operated with certainty. That has vanished. Last March was hard, between the diners who flouted rules and the verbal abuse. “We got criticized and abused” then, and he expects the same thing now, says Dallas Hale, owner of Shell Shack, Sushi Marquee, and Ebb & Flow.

Shannon Wynne, the prolific restaurateur behind Meddlesome Moth, Rodeo Goat, Miriam Cocina y Kitchen, and Flying Fish, says he is “flabbergasted” at the pronouncement.

“We had to fight like crazy to get people to wear a mask,” Wynne said. He and others were just getting to a place where there was less pushback.

Now, they don’t have the government mandate to back them up. They’re faced with the specter of naysayers, afraid, as Anderson says, of “newly emboldened anti-maskers.”

“We had to fight like crazy to get people to wear a mask.

Restaurateur Shannon Wynne

The dilemma they’re faced with: it’s hard to play sheriff when providing hospitality. And it’s so hard to please everybody. Provost encapsulates the balancing act or catch-22 in an image, a crosswalk analogy in which she faces a pedestrian in a crosswalk when the light turns green, and an eager driver behind.

“I got the customer in the back saying, ‘Go, go, go!’ And I’ve got the customer in the front that I’m trying to be courteous to. And I’m not trying to push,” she says.

They can respectfully ask that diners wear a mask, “But the reality is that we’re not the police. We’re more hospitable than we are constable,” she says.

Some are worried for their staff. They’re worried for the backlash their employees will face. The burnout and exhaustion are real after cauterizing and applying a tourniquet all year. Fount Board and Table owner Olivia Genthe says she is “staying the course and doing what we’re doing,” not wanting her small business to present a hazard. But she worries about her little place being a toxic place for her staff. She’s prepared to do whatever she can do to visibly push back and keep the fire off the employees.

“I can take it. I really worry about the staff being beat up about it. We saw it in the beginning, and we’ll see it now,” she says. “Everybody’s nervous. Everybody has an opinion.”

“Either way, we’re gonna lose customers,” Gross says.

With the mandate, there was no option. But now that’s gone, opening the door to choice and leaving them unprotected. “Now that’s there’s no mandate, businesses are forced to make a choice, then customers will make a choice, too.” He’s had a diner tell him he would rather urinate in the bushes than wear a mask.

Some do see a silver lining in the opportunity to hire back staff. Hale, who is preparing to open a new Ebb & Flow location in Plano, is not changing any of his safety and cleaning protocols for staff. At all of his restaurants, he will require employees to wear masks. But now, he will give diners the choice. And he will increase capacity.

In this delicate time, one thing is clear. Things have been a roller coaster. Next week will present challenges that will continue likely through the conclusion of the pandemic.

“There’s some shock, there’s some trauma. It’s not like you can just turn a switch on and this is all over and we’re ready to go back to normal.”

Janice Provost, owner of Parigi

Restaurateurs are planning to talk with their staffs. They’ll put up placards and signs. They’ll be courteous and staunch. Bergus says they will not be pulling tables out of storage at Lockhart. Nick Backlund, owner of the newly opened Royal 38, says he just doesn’t want to see fights at the host stand (which he has furnished with disposable masks).

But some, like Jon Alexis, see it as the first indication of light at the end of the tunnel. Having co-founded a COVID-19 testing company early in the pandemic, he recently added plexiglass at his TJs Seafood at Preston Royal, installed to help diners feel more comfortable in anticipation of slowly opening the dining room. He’s in it for the long haul.

If diners are vulnerable, he doesn’t think they should be dining at 75 percent capacity, let alone 100 percent capacity. But he’s hoping it’s the beginning of the end.

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