Some of the biggest U.S. retail, theater, hotel and restaurant chains say they will continue mandating masks and limiting capacity in Texas after the state drops Covid-related restrictions next week.
The move by Gov. Greg Abbott to “open Texas 100%” has divided the business community, with some welcoming the move, while others say it puts the state at risk of a backslide and will make it harder for businesses to enforce safety protocols.
Most businesses in the state could already operate at 75% capacity, so the Republican governor’s mask shift raised larger questions.
Hyatt Hotels Corp, Target Corp.,
and CVS Health Corp., are among the major corporations saying they have no plans to drop mask requirements. Gym operator Life Time Inc.,
Cos. and a number of local restaurants plan to stop mandating masks or return to normal capacity, or both.
“I already get screamed at when people don’t want to wear their mask,” said
owner of Make Your Life Sweeter Brands. “If that happens with the mandate how am I going to manage without it?” The business primarily served high-end and celebrity events before the pandemic, but with that business gone, Ms. Tadia switched to online retailing and opened a restaurant at a Dallas mall.
She says she will continue to insist on masks, though she thinks it will be more difficult to enforce capacity limits with no state rule. “I’ve already printed out a sign that masks are required upon entry.”
Some business owners in hard-hit sectors like gyms and restaurants said they fully support a return to normalcy. The state had since September limited indoor restaurant capacity at 75%.
“Restaurants need the dine-in margins to really regain financial success,” said
Laura Rea Dickey,
CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc., which has 160 of its 500 locations in the state. “It’s good momentum for folks and good news for the industry.”
Starting March 10, Texas businesses will be able to operate at full capacity and state residents will no longer be required to wear masks to visit them, Gov. Abbott said Tuesday. Mr. Abbott instituted a mask mandate in July, as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations increased.
More than 43,000 Texans have died of Covid-19. The state has logged about 6,600 new cases in the past week, an increase from mid-February, but a significant decrease from January. As of Tuesday, 12.9% of Texas residents had received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Texas, only healthcare workers, people over 65 years old and adults with pre-existing conditions are eligible for the vaccines.
The Texas Restaurant Association said Tuesday it felt confident about loosening restrictions given the level of vaccination in the state. The group said it would advocate for restaurant workers to get access to vaccines as soon as possible.
The World Health Organization and other health authorities have recommended a jurisdiction’s positivity rate fall below 5% before lifting mitigation restrictions. The CDC recommends that both employees and customers wear masks when possible and when they’re not eating or drinking.
After about a monthlong shutdown last year, Texas allowed businesses to reopen to varying degrees beginning in May. Dallas has been a top-performing theatrical market nationwide for several weeks, according to one studio distribution executive. The city also has had the highest return-to-work rate in the country since the beginning of the pandemic.
In recent weeks, as Covid-19 cases have fallen and vaccines rolled out across the country, governors have dropped statewide mask mandates in states including Mississippi, Iowa and Montana. In some cases local governments have kept restrictions in place. In Texas, cities and counties are blocked from putting their own mandates in place.
On Wednesday, President Biden said state leaders were making a “big mistake” in relaxing Covid-19 restrictions and protective measures, describing some of their latest moves as “Neanderthal thinking.”
Life Time, with 26 of its 150 fitness clubs in Texas, will stop requiring customers to wear masks or to social distance as soon as the mandate lifts, a spokeswoman said. Employees still must wear masks and undergo temperature checks, she said, and clubs will maintain strict cleaning protocols. If a county starts to see the hospitalization rate rise, an individual location may reinstate restrictions, she said.
Indoor gym and fitness facilities have been hit hard by the pandemic, with many customers steering clear even when they are open and replacing gym memberships with home equipment and virtual classes.
CVS, which began mandating masks at all stores nationwide in July as more scientific data emerged showing that face coverings help slow the virus’s spread, will continue to require them, a spokesman said. He said CVS will continue to follow federal health guidelines. Employees are directed to avoid confrontations with customers who refuse masks and instead try to serve them as quickly as possible, the company said. Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. also will continue to mandate masks, the company said.
America’s largest theater chain,
has had all its Texas theaters open since last year. The company will continue to require moviegoers to wear masks.
“We are only following the guidance of the CDC and medical experts, not politicians,” said a spokesman for Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a national theater chain that specializes in food-and-drink service in its theaters.
The chain plans to keep its mask mandate, social-distancing requirements and all other safety measures, he said. Alamo Drafthouse filed for bankruptcy protection Wednesday.
Some of the state’s biggest grocers are taking different approaches to the policy change. Kroger Co. said it will continue to require customers and employees to wear masks until its workers can receive the Covid-19 vaccine, while Albertsons said it will now encourage but not require face coverings for customers. The company will still require employees to wear masks.
Texas grocer H-E-B LP said it will keep its existing policy of requiring employees and vendors to wear masks and encouraging customers to wear them.
Food retailers, which have remained open during the pandemic, have required customers and employees to put on masks. But many have struggled to enforce mask mandates as some customers pushed back or didn’t wear face coverings properly. Some in Texas worry that the latest order will make it even tougher for them to ensure a safe environment for customers and employees.
“Frankly, I’m scared. I’m nervous,” said
a grocery manager of Fresh Plus in Austin, who has been working at the supermarket since last March after years of working at restaurants. Mr. Bellamy, 50, said his store will continue to enforce mask mandates for customers.
said he immediately started getting calls from worried restaurant employees after the governor announced his decision. The co-founder of Austin-based Tarka Indian Kitchen said he was concerned that the rollback on restrictions was coming too soon.
The restaurant will continue to space tables six feet apart and won’t move to full capacity, he said. The restaurant won’t ask workers to confront customers who don’t wear masks, Mr. Saini said. “We don’t want to put our employees in a position of creating adversarial relations between them and the guest,” he said.
owner of the Cottonmouth Club in Houston, said he is keeping his bar closed despite the loosened restrictions. Mr. Neff said he is more concerned about the safety of his staff and patrons than jumping on reopening. “Nothing has changed for us,” Mr. Neff said. “Just because Greg Abbott says it’s safe doesn’t mean it’s safe. We can read the CDC’s data, as well.”
—Heather Haddon, Jaewon Kang, Sarah Nassauer and R.T. Watson contributed to this article.
Write to Sharon Terlep at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
Life Time Inc. is among businesses planning to drop mask mandates in Texas. An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the company’s name as Life Time Fitness Inc. (Corrected on March 3)
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