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Restaurant owners digest mask mandate developments

"I don't know all the right answers right now," said long-time restaurateur Vance Martin. The governor announced Tuesday businesses will not have to require masks.

FORT WORTH, Texas — For the restaurant industry, the past 12 months have been defined by uncertainty, change and adaptation. 

"Naturally, the year was devastating," said veteran restaurateur Vance Martin, who owns Lili's Bistro on Fort Worth's Magnolia Avenue.

And Tuesday, the industry was faced with yet another change: Gov. Greg Abbott announced businesses, including restaurants, can open to full capacity as of next Wednesday, and he said the mask mandate would be removed. 

“State mandates are no longer needed," Abbott said in a press conference in Lubbock. “Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills.”

Tarrant County then followed suit, saying the mask mandate was immediately rescinded, meaning businesses were no longer mandated to require masks inside.

RELATED: Tarrant County to lift local mask mandate immediately; Dallas County judge calls Abbott's decision 'unfortunate'

"I don't know all the right answers right now, nor do I think really anybody does," Martin said Tuesday.

The announcement left Martin trying to figure out his next move. He's called an emergency meeting with his staff to see how they feel.

"Furthermore, I wouldn't be beyond calling several of my guests, longtime guests, on getting some feedback about how they feel," he said.

If individual restaurants still want to require masks for customers and employees, they can.

Jeff Brightwell is a partner at Dot’s Hop House in Deep Ellum. Under the rules, he could go from a current capacity of 275 up to 750, but he said it’s too soon.

“You’re going to be forcing business owners to choose profits over people, which is a bad place to be," Brightwell said. “With spring break around the corner, we’re just setting ourselves up to go back to the beginning.”

He wonders if customers will avoid places with restrictions. 

Nael Rodriguez owns Orno in Oak Lawn and is in a unique position. His wife is an ER doctor.  

"She was like, 'What, no, we’re nowhere near herd immunity. Vaccinations aren’t at the percentage that they should be. We’re going to end up just seeing a huge surge',” Rodriguez said. 

He's concerned that a lack of masks and distancing could lead to a new surge that would threat to close down businesses like restaurants more than before. 

"Do we open and continue to put the community at risk or do we lose our life savings and the hundred of thousands of dollars that we’ve put into this restaurant," he said. “The moral implications, the ethical implications are always taken into effect.”

The Texas Restaurant Association said 11,000 restaurants have had to close their doors forever during the pandemic. 

Rosako Bailey of Rosako's Soul Food and BBQ in Bedford said there's no question: he's not changing anything right now.

"I will not let people come into my restaurant with no mask when there's still a virus out there," he said. 

RELATED: COVID-19 updates: Dallas County reaches grim milestone of over 3,000 deaths, as Gov. lifts all restrictions and mask order

His restaurant will continue to be curbside and carry-out only, and he will continue to require masks if you pick up food inside. He said if a customer refuses to wear a mask, they'll simply bring the food to them outside.

"I'm not jeopardizing me or my family, because people have said they don't have to wear masks," said Bailey.

When asked if Tuesday's news puts more public-facing workers at risk, Emily Williams Knight of the Texas Restaurant Association said this:

"The consumer and restaurant workers have a voice of where they feel safe and where they want to spend their time. Members would be very wise to have those open discussions." 

That's just what Vance Martin is doing: absorbing it all.

"Initially, I can say that at the very least my employees that are more comfortable with a mask will absolutely be able to do so," he said.

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