Courts have temporarily allowed local governments in Texas such as Harris County to require mask-wearing in schools and by county employees amidst a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations attributed to the highly transmissible delta variant. Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, has appealed such rulings and stood firm in his stance that no local government entity can issue a mask mandate, per his executive order.
As for private businesses, while the issue makes its way through the court system, they’re left to toe the line between protecting their employees and customers while also not alienating them. The pandemic has been rough on the economy as well as public health, so shops, stores and restaurants need customers to survive.
“It’s a fine line for small businesses to toe in the sense that there’s no surefire guidance they can lean on anymore,” said Coryne Rich, manager of the 19th Street Merchants Association, which includes businesses on West 19th Street in the Heights. “They’re trying to find the happy medium between safety and business. They’re trying to still keep themselves afloat.”
Rich said each 19th Street business has its own policy regarding masks. For the most part, she said, shops on the street are requiring their employees to wear masks and asking non-vaccinated customers to do the same.
Proper mask-wearing helps reduce the transmission of COVID-19, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In light of the spread of the delta variant, which has caused an uptick in cases in the Houston area and elsewhere, the federal public health administration recommends that all people wear masks in indoor public spaces whether they are vaccinated or not, because vaccinated people can still contract and spread the coronavirus through what it refers to as “breakthrough cases.”
Creek Group operations manager Greg Mitchell, whose company operates five restaurant-and-bar concepts in the Greater Heights, said it has been requiring employees to wear masks – whether they are vaccinated or not – since July 29, around the time cases started to spike. Mask-wearing by customers is suggested, Mitchell said, but the business doesn’t press the matter.
Outdoor patio spaces are prominent at the Creek Group establishments, such as Cedar Creek Bar & Grill in Shady Acres and Onion Creek Coffee House, Bar & Lounge in the Heights. Creek Group owner Gary Mosley said his businesses also try to create a safe environment by using a disinfecting solution on surfaces as well as in their air-conditioning ducts.
Mosley said his restaurant-and-bar concepts are trying to be appealing as possible amidst a decline in business since the delta variant began surging in the region.
“Come out and support us. We do need that,” Mosley said. “I’m not just saying our business. We’re saying all the businesses still need support. We’re saying all businesses still need support from the community.”
The co-owner of another Heights staple, C&D Hardware and Gifts, 314 E. 11th St., said the store stopped requiring masks when Abbott lifted his statewide mask mandate in March. Kathy Stratton said C&D asks its non-vaccinated employees and customers to wear masks, although they are not required.
The policy has not created any issues, according to Stratton.
“We’ve had some customers come in with their masks, and some don’t,” she said. “Nobody’s complained to my knowledge.”