As states remove mask mandates and reopen, what does it mean for restaurant workers?

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Kerry Breen
·4 min read
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Some states have announced that they will begin rolling back their mask mandates and COVID-19 closures, despite the guidance of public health officials.

Texas governor Greg Abbott said that the state will be "100% reopened" on March 10; shortly after Abbott's announcement, governor Tate Reeves announced that he would immediately end Mississippi's mask mandate. On March 4, Alabama governor Kay Ivey said that she would extend the state's current mask mandate through April 9, but discontinue it after that time.

Other states, including Iowa and North Dakota, have previously ended their mask mandates, and some states, including Alaska, Florida and Arizona never had mask mandates enacted.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that the early removal of mask mandates could be premature. While the vaccine rollout is continuing across the country and nearly 2 million people are receiving a vaccine dose each day, some emerging variants and a slight rise in cases have experts telling people to be cautious.

Related: The concept is an important weapon against diseases, including COVID-19.

"I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19," Walensky said at the daily White House COVID-19 briefing.

"Please hear me clearly," Walensky said. "At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained."

The removal of mask mandates and reopening of businesses also leads to some concern for restaurant workers who may be indoors, exposed to customers who are unmasked while they eat. In September, Dr. S. Patrick Kachur, a professor of population and family health at the Columbia University Medical Center, said indoor dining is "more of a risk" than most activities.

"You have to take off your mask and you're often engaged in conversations in close quarters," said Kachur at the time. "There may be ambient noise you're talking loud to talk over, and all of those things can increase the number of viral particles that are expelled in total."

Some businesses in Texas pointed out that the vaccine process does not prioritize restaurant workers, who would be among those most at risk in an indoor dining setting. A study conducted by the University of California found that restaurant workers died of coronavirus at a rate 40% higher than workers in other professions; line cooks had a 60% increase in mortality associated with the pandemic, according to CNBC.

Chef Michael Fojtasek posted an image on Instagram, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, dubbing it "murder."

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"Not hyperbolic," he wrote. "Come at me."

Fort Worth restaurant owner Jon Bonnell told NBC News affiliate KVOA that he will "still encourage" mask-wearing.

"We're still going to encourage our customers to wear a mask because I think it is probably safer," Bonnell said. "Our staff is still going to wear masks."

When Dallas-Fort Worth based station NBC 5 spoke to Laura Rea Dickey, the CEO of Dallas-based Dickey's Barbecue Pit, she said that she's eager to serve depending on their comfort level. The chain has locations in 44 states, which she said has given her some familiarity with different levels of restrictions.

"If they are comfortable with delivery, I'd love to serve you barbecue from our website," Dickey said. "If they are comfortable maybe venturing out, patios are an option. And if they are in one of the first vaccination groups and they feel confident enough and comfortable, a dining room is a good way to support business. I think that’s where it’s being sensitive to individual situations."

Related: Restaurant workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but local groups aim to provide financial assistance and work connections.

In a virtual press conference, Texas Restaurant Association CEO Emily Williams Knight said that they are doing their best to make sure member restaurants are following best safety practices and communicating expectations with customers.

"You've learned a lot about interacting with your guests and you learned a lot about what makes guests feel safe, so today is not a day to throw out all of those protocols and go back to life on March 1," said Knight on Tuesday, according to NBC 5. "Each of these restaurants needs to be really thoughtful and have a discussion with their employees and guests about interacting as they move forward."

Mask mandates do not mean that stores and restaurants can't enact their own policies. Several chains, including Kroger, Target and Macys, said that they will continue to enforce mask-wearing policies in their stores.

"To ensure the continued safety of our customers and associates, The Kroger Family of Companies will continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the COVID-19 vaccine," said the company in a statement to TODAY Food on Wednesday.