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Did Texas ‘just give up’ on COVID? Fort Worth businesses split on still requiring masks

Luke Ranker, Brian Lopez
·5 min read

For nearly a year Fort Worth’s small businesses have struggled to balance mask mandates and changing occupancy guidelines while watching revenues decline as customers stayed home to avoid the coronavirus. On Tuesday that came to an end as Gov. Greg Abbott and local officials moved to reopen Texas.

Effective March 10, “all businesses of any type” can open at full capacity, Abbott said Tuesday. The mask mandate will also be lifted March 10. Attempting to avoid confusion, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley ended the county mask order effective immediately and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the city would not continue its order.

Fort Worth businesses were split over whether they would continue to require coronavirus safety protocols with some saying the would maintain mask policies, but owners seemed optimistic about the future.

Macy Moore, co-owner of HopFusion Ale Works in the Near Southside, said enforcing the mask mandate and other guidelines had been a safety issue for his staff. Shutdowns and changing guidelines had been frustrating for business owners at the beginning of the pandemic, but Moore said his major concern was for staff who had been threatened while trying to enforce orders.

Despite the threats, he said he believed requiring masks and social distancing, as well as other changes to the brewery’s business, had been the right thing to do. Now he said he thought it would be impossible to enforce coronavirus protocols since staff can’t fall back on state or county orders.

Over the phone, Moore was clearly conflicted and frustrated. He said he felt like Texas had given up.

“If you ask me as a business owner, I want to get back to 100% because this is killer to our business,” Moore said, before pausing.

“But me personally? It’s insulting to me. Why for months and months was I physically attacked trying to enforce this? Why did we have to put our team at risk and lay people off and everything else we did over the last year and all of sudden — when the numbers aren’t any better — just give up?”

Two other popular Near Southside bars will continue limiting occupancy and requiring masks: the Boiled Owl Tavern and Tarantula Tiki Lounge. Tarantula part-owner and longtime Boiled Owl bartender Steve Steward said staff would “continue pandemic safety” at both bars for the time being.

Jonathan Morris, owner of Fort Worth Barber Shop, called Abbott’s order premature, arguing the state should have waited longer for new coronavirus cases to continue to fall before reopening. Rolling back safety mandates is “not small business friendly,” he said because workers will now have to confront patrons who may not want to abide by a business’s guidelines.

“Not just entrepreneurs and small business owners, but front line service workers now have to have these battles face-to-face with people who don’t want to wear masks anymore more because they’re tired of it,” Morris said. “Quite frankly, we’re tired of it too, but we want to remain in business, we want to be safe.”

Morris said the barber shop would still socially distance customers and require masks. He said he had no problem refusing service to anyone who didn’t want to abide by protocols.

Other business owners were eager to welcome a return to pre-COVID normalcy.

Ahead of Abbott’s announcement Parts Unknown manager Lisa Dickinson was excited at the prospect that “Fort Worth could totally reopen.”

The boutique shop at 410 Houston St. has struggled amid the coronavirus, she said, describing downtown Fort Worth as “basically a ghost town” Monday through Thursday. The shop has survived on a combination of loyal customers and visitors who arrive for long weekends or conventions.

Dickinson said she didn’t believe masks were necessary and it was time to reopen.

“I think that people are mature enough, and they know how to keep themselves safe,” she said. “People are wearing masks out of respect for each other, so if it gets super crowded and we need to wear masks, I’m sure that we’re smart enough to do that.”

Fort Worth bar owner Glen Keely said the pandemic “murdered” his business.

Keely had owned Thompson’s Bookstore, a popular downtown cocktail bar, but sold it amid the pandemic. He had not previously contemplated selling, but shutdowns “forced my hand,” he said. Keely is still a part-owner of Poag Mahone’s Irish Pub in the West 7th corridor and will be opening Sidesaddle Salon in the Stockyards.

Keely has been critical of the occupancy rates since the beginning, arguing they appeared to single out bars early while restaurants were able to remain open. He said he had spent a lot of time and money retooling his bar’s business model to include food service.

Poag Mahone’s will open at full capacity and staff will not enforce masks as soon as possible, Keely said.

“We followed along before,” he said, saying he wasn’t sure masks had been helpful in preventing spread of the coronavirus. “We’ll follow our governor.”

Nora Palomino, manager of Los Zarapes restaurant in north Fort Worth, says she will continue to require masks even though she and her staff might be harassed for it.

Palomino when the mask mandate wasn’t in place last year, her business was one of the few that required face coverings. Some customers that didn’t want to wear one verbally abused her and the staff.

“It’s scary. I don’t want to go to work if it’s going to be like this but I have to,” she said frustratingly. “We have to run business as usual. We don’t have a choice.”

Frezko Taco Spot owner Eliazar Salinas III said he will not require his customers to wear masks, but his staff will be required. Tables will be distanced and there will be sanitizer available. Salinas said with every business being open now, customers can just go to other places that don’t require masks.

“We’re in Texas, I mean it’s already hard enough,” he said. “The state chose profit over people.”

Salinas closed his indoor dining in November when coronavirus was surging, but he couldn’t keep doing that because other businesses were opening and he couldn’t keep up with the competition. Salinas also already had one of his locations close due to the pandemic.

“It’s tough,” he said.