Decision time came Wednesday for restaurant owners across the Rio Grande Valley on whether or not to open their eateries to full capacity and require employees and customers to continue to wear face masks.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s announced last week that he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses to resume operations at 100 percent capacity starting March 10, and three days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report underscoring the importance of wearing masks and the risks of indoor dining when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
The CDC report, released March 5, noted that virus case counts decreased in states where mask mandates were implemented, while COVID-19-related deaths increased in states where indoor dining resumed after being restricted.
It’s still up to Texas businesses whether to require customers and staff to wear masks or maintain limits on capacity, but as of Wednesday they’re no longer legally required to. A few local business owners were queried to find out whether their policies and practices have changed as a result of Abbott’s order.
Alberto Suarez, owner of Koko’s Café Uptown in McAllen, said he wasn’t happy to hear of Abbott’s order concerning masks and said all his employees would continue wearing them.
“It’s very important for their safety and the safety of our clientele also,” he said. “So no, I wasn’t pleased at all about that. I think we should wait a little bit longer.”
Suarez said it’s been rough going for the 30-year-old business during the year of pandemic but that the loyalty of longtime customers has made the difference.
“We deliver and that’s how we’ve been surviving,” he said. “Our catering aspect of the business has suffered tremendously but we’re in the H-E-Bs now. We have the pre-packed meals that we sell at H-E-B, so that’s really helped us out also. We’ll be having our meals at the Brownsville H-E-B next soon.”
Although Wednesday was only the first day of Abbott’s mask-free mandate, Koko’s has not encountered customers refusing to wear them, Suarez said, adding that he is glad to be operating at 100 percent capacity again — with masks for the sake of customers and staff.
“We’re about 90 percent today,” Suarez said. “I was all for him opening up 100 percent, but with precautions and safety. I’m glad that happened because there are a lot of businesses that have suffered throughout this ordeal.”
Sam Guerrero, owner of Mi Torito Restaurant in Brownsville, said it hasn’t made much difference.
“We ordered some signs that are going to say that although (masks) are not mandatory they’re strongly suggested,” he said. “Our employees are going to continue to wear them. So that’s probably what we’re going to do and just see how it goes, if the cases are going to rise again or if they’re going to decline. I guess we’ll play it by ear and see how it goes.”
Strongly suggesting that customers wear masks as opposed to insisting on it is “just not to pick one side over the other,” Guerrero said.
“Our employees are going to continue to wear them,” he said. “We’ll leave the rest up to the patrons and see what they want to do.”
Guerrero said the restaurant would stick with its current 75 percent occupancy level for now, noting that the dining area is large enough to be able to put plenty of distance between tables and still seat just about everybody. Despite the pandemic and fluctuating restrictions, business has been good, he said.
“Thank God, we’ve been blessed,” Guerrero said. “We’ve been busy. I don’t know that if they’re the numbers pre-COVID, but we’ve been really doing really well. I’m going to count my blessings.”
Asked if any pandemic-related changes would become permanent, he said simply, “just appreciate what you’ve got because you don’t know when things are going to take a turn for the worse.”
Joe Kenney, owner of Cobbleheads Bar & Grill in Brownsville, said nothing is changing at his business in terms of masks and occupancy limits as a result of Abbott’s order.
“We’re keeping everything the same,” he said. “We have some young staff that have to wait for their vaccines, so anybody that wants to get a vaccine is going to get it. Until the ones that want it get it, we’re not going to change anything. … We pulled tables when (the pandemic) happened to give us a six-foot distance inside. We left those tables out. We’re staying status quo right now.”
Kenney said the restaurant is fortunate to have a resaca-side dock that serves as a spacious dining area.
“We’re luckier than some that we have the outdoor dock,” he said. “It’s been keeping us pretty busy.”
Once every employee who wants to be is vaccinated, Kenney said, he’ll look at making adjustments and perhaps relaxing restrictions somewhat. Only one staff member has contracted the virus, through his family, and it was tough on him, Kenney said.
“It was a terrible experience for him,” he said. “Plus we know a lot of friends that have been through it and we don’t want to wish that on anybody right now.”
One change going forward is that Cobbleheads won’t be open until 2 a.m. on weekends anymore as in the days before COVID. It’s a move toward less bar, more grill, Kenney said.
“We’re going to keep with that,” he said. “We’re going to focus more on the restaurant and family atmosphere around here.”
Kenney said he hopes customers will respect business owners’ wishes regarding precautions — not just Cobbleheads but all businesses.
“Everybody is a valued customer to us and we want them all to be happy, but in this day and age it goes both ways, respect,” he said.
Monitor Reporter Xavier Alvarez contributed to this report.