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Abbott's Decree: Houston Restaurants Respond

Wine and dine and mask up in Montrose.
Wine and dine and mask up in Montrose.
Photo by Julie Soefer
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Governor Greg Abbott delivered an executive order March 2 lifting the state mandate on masks and face coverings in public while giving the go ahead to all businesses, including bars and restaurants, to return to full capacity, as we reported here in the Houston Press. Caesar's decree has gone out across the great expanse of the Lone Star State and the reactions are mixed. Let's just say, if you felt a certain way about masks and COVID-19 before the governor's executive decision, not much has probably changed your point of view.

Many people believe that Abbott's timing of the statement was meant, at least in part, to deflect his rather ham-fisted handling of Houston's most recent crisis, Winter Storm Uri. One of those people is Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo who said in a press conference, "At best, today's decision is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid."  Houston Mayor, Sylvester Turner, called Abbott's rescinding of the mask order "a national embarrassment." 

While the handling of the pandemic has been overtly political, much to the detriment of American lives, the concept of the rights of the individual remains a non-negotiable idea to many Texans who balk at being told what to do, even if it is for their own good. With the mask mandate lifted and businesses back to 100 percent by executive order, we at the Press wondered how Houston restaurant owners, chefs and employees felt about the complete lift of restrictions and how they would proceed in regards to it.

We reached out to some local restaurants and some reached out to us. Most are moving with caution due to the fact that, despite being front line workers, most restaurant employees, who tend to be on the younger side, have not been vaccinated. This puts the staff and their families in jeopardy on a daily basis.

Chris Shepherd's steakhouse, Georgia James, has glass dividers for extra safety.EXPAND
Chris Shepherd's steakhouse, Georgia James, has glass dividers for extra safety.
Photo by Nuray Taylor

Some restaurants are going forward with opening to full capacity but most are still remaining at 50 to 75 percent. Many are still continuing to require masks, which also begs the question: Will employees be subjected to irate customers who refuse to abide by a business' protocols? It also remains to be seen whether lax standards affect the public's desire to dine out. This writer, after losing two acquaintances to COVID in the past month, is not keen on sipping a margarita in a mask-less crowd.

Here are some responses and decisions made by some of Houston's best restaurants. Whether you agree or disagree with their standards of service for the time being, don't be a douchebag. The rights of the individual also extend to a business making its own rules about the safety and well-being of its staff. And, really. Wearing a mask is not a bad trade-off to enjoy some of our city's best food.

Ziggy Gruber's Zigalicious Burger awaits masked customers.EXPAND
Ziggy Gruber's Zigalicious Burger awaits masked customers.
Photo by Paula Murphy

Kenny and Ziggy's New York Delicatessen, will continue to require guests to wear facial coverings, except when seated at tables, while employees will be masked and gloved. The restaurant plans to follow social distancing guidelines with advice from health professionals, the CDC and the Texas Medical Center and will review its protocols as conditions change nationally, statewide and locally.

Owner Ziggy Gruber, aka Deli Man, said, " At Kenny and Ziggy's, we will never compromise on the safety of our customers and staff. Rest assured, we welcome you to Kenny and Ziggy's with a smile. For the time being, it will continue to be under a mask."

Underbelly Hospitality (Georgia James, One Fifth, Hay Merchant and UB Preserv) will also continue its safety protocols as they currently stand. Owner/Chef Chris Shepherd and his team are not planning to open at 100 percent for now.  The restaurants will continue temperature checks on its employees, masks for staff and guests, sanitization of shared surfaces and mandatory regular hand washing. The restaurant group also invested this past year in 4' x 50" glass dividers to protect customers while dining.

Tim Love, owner of Woodshed Smokehouse, Love Shack and Side Dough at Levy Park, said in a press release, " It's very apropos that the Texas governor announces on Texas Independence Day that we're going to be independent again... Almost one year ago to the day, we wrote what we called our COVID playbook which we submitted to the Governor's office and our mayor's office in Fort Worth." Adding that its own protocols were stricter than the state and federal mandates, Love said, " We never had any issues at our restaurants, we kept everyone safe and now, we're coming through to the other end of this better and stronger."

Paul Miller is taking the reopening phase slow.EXPAND
Paul Miller is taking the reopening phase slow.
Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Gr8 Plate Hospitality (The Union Kitchen, Jax Grill) issued a statement from owner Paul Miller saying, " Our primary concern is for our staff and our guests and while we certainly appreciate the opportunity to go back to 100 percent and the Governor has removed the mask mandate, we are going to continue to uphold our safety and sanitation protocols as we slowly but surely move into this new phase of our business."

David Oglesby, a manager at the The Union Kitchen Katy, passed away February 19 from complications due to COVID-19, as we reported last week in the Press.

Riel's Chicken Caprese is part of its Louie's Sandwich menu.
Riel's Chicken Caprese is part of its Louie's Sandwich menu.
Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Riel owner and chef Ryan Lachaine says that his restaurant will continue the same health and safety protocols as well, including masked staff and sanitization procedures. Lachaine also asks that guests wear masks when entering the restaurant. "I understand that not everyone is going to agree with this. However, the majority of our employees have not had the opportunity to get vaccinated and we believe that keeping these safety protocols is the best way to keep our staff and customers safe."

Lachaine and his team were busy last week providing hot meals to local elderly folks after the winter storm.

Chef Hugo Ortega provides a safe restaurant experience for everyone.
Chef Hugo Ortega provides a safe restaurant experience for everyone.
Photo by Paula Murphy

H Town Restaurant Group (Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's, Caracol and Xochi) will continue to implement its mask requirements for guests and staff while entering and moving about the restaurants. It will continue to operate its restaurants at its present reduced capacity as it monitors the situation and will make decisions that are "best for our employees, our business and those we care about- all of you!"

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen will continue to require masks at both locations and will stay at 50 percent capacity for now.

Goodnight Hospitality (Montrose Cheese and Wine, Goodnight Charlie's, March and Rosie Cannonball) offered a statement regarding Governor Abbott's executive order, " While we are hopeful for the future and extremely grateful to still be operating ...  we feel strongly that it is not our time to loosen any protocols for everyone's safety. That time will come when everyone has the equal ability to find a vaccine."

The group's restaurants will continue to require masks for employees and guests, when not seated at table. There will be daily temperature checks and monthly COVID-19 testing for the team members and the businesses will each operate at 50 percent capacity indoors. The statement goes on to say, " We are thankful for Texas sunshine, outdoor dining, our kind guests, the dedication of our team and science."

Xin Chao will continue its masks requirements along with sanitization protocols and hand sanitizers. Co-owner and chef Christine Ha, also known as The Blind Chef, shared with us her statement to her own team regarding the lifting of the statewide mask mandate and the return to 100 percent capacity.

" As a person living with an autoimmune condition who receives immunosuppressive treatments, I understand the health and safety concerns such an order poses for, not just others like myself, but for the general public." Ha stated that the restaurant would stay at 50 to 75 percent capacity indoors and require the team and customers to wear masks when not seated at their tables. She said that Xin Chao would continue the guidelines until "vaccines are available to everyone and the pandemic is no longer."

Sticky's Chicken is sticking to safety.
Sticky's Chicken is sticking to safety.
Photo by Carlos Brandon

Sticky's Chicken co-owner Patsy Vivares does not plan on changing any protocols until all employees are vaccinated, COVID cases decline in Texas and the CDC says it's safe. Vivares said, " We are thrilled Texas is opening 100 percent but we will continue to practice COVID precautions due to the increase of the new variants."

Present Company has plenty of colorful outdoor space for social distancing.
Present Company has plenty of colorful outdoor space for social distancing.
Photo by Becca Wright

Present Company will also continue to enforce its mask requirements and COVID guidelines for the time being as the safety of its staff and customers is its number one priority.

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