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A Black woman wearing a black shirt and black face mask holds a potato while standing in a kitchen. Ingredients like olive oil are scattered on the counter, and a pair of cameras sits in the background.
Chef Tiffany Derry, wearing a mask, films a cooking show
Courtesy Tiffany Derry

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Enforcing Masks at My Texas Restaurants Has Been the Toughest Decision in a Year of Tough Decisions

Roots Chicken Shak owner and Top Chef contestant Tiffany Derry explains the struggle around her plans to keep her staff safe in the absence of government support

This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve been faced with making difficult decisions almost daily in order to keep my staff and guests safe at my Roots Chicken Shak restaurants in Dallas and Austin. From implementing new safety and sanitation measures to pivoting to takeout and delivery to offering grocery bags and family meal kits to keep my community fed, this has undoubtedly been the hardest period in my 20-plus year career as a chef.

Over the past year, restaurateurs like myself have taken hit after hit as occupancy restrictions have ebbed and flowed, causing severe profit losses, and forcing many establishments to permanently shutter.

But the toughest decision I’ve faced to-date came last week when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he would lift the state’s mask mandate and allow businesses to open at 100 percent capacity. This decision came at a particularly inopportune time, as many local restaurants are still reeling from the winter storms that swept through the state in February — an event that caused even more revenue loss due to power outages that spurred temporary closures, ingredient spoilage, and property damage.

When I heard the news, I was overcome with a mix of emotions — mostly shock, anger, and disbelief. On one hand, I’m happy that restaurants can open up to serve more guests, and, in turn, start making up for the business we lost over the past year. On the other hand, lifting the mask mandate has put my business, as well as my employees and guests in a vulnerable spot.

Without the statewide mask mandate, restaurateurs are essentially being asked to draw a line in the sand and choose whether or not to enforce mask-wearing, and some diners are now choosing which businesses to support based on their stance on the issue.

Here’s where I stand: Scientists and medical professionals are telling us that it’s too early to remove the mask mandate, so I’ve chosen to follow their expert advice. My restaurants will continue to enforce mask wearing in order to keep my employees and guests safe and continue to reduce the spread. Unfortunately, this decision means that myself and my employees are now responsible for enforcing our rules, which could cause conflict with guests who choose not to wear masks. This makes our jobs more challenging and unsafe. What all this boils down to is that the government has left us to fend for ourselves, without a place to turn for support when a conflict inevitably arises.

In Texas, we are already feeling the effects of Gov. Abbott’s decision. Restaurants like mine are starting to see backlash from guests who don’t want to support us for trying to keep everyone safe. Some businesses have received threats, guests have caused public scenes, and Yelpers are leaving negative reviews based on mask policies.

This policy decision is sowing division and causing real, financial harm to restaurants that the measure is purportedly trying to help. It is the exact opposite of what we need right now.

Duck fat fried chicken served on a metal tray lined with paper
Derry’s famed duck fat fried chicken
Courtesy Roots Chicken Shak

What we need instead is to come together and support each other just like we’ve done throughout these tumultuous times. Between the pandemic, last summer’s racial unrest, and this year’s storm, I’m continually inspired by how the restaurant industry has rallied to continue to serve our communities, and how our communities have continued to support us.

This time is no different. No matter which side of the line you’re on, please continue to support your local restaurants. If you feel comfortable dining out, especially after being vaccinated, patronize the establishments that are walking the extra mile to make dining rooms as safe as possible. If you aren’t willing to comply with an establishment’s mask policy, order your food to-go and enjoy it at home. At Roots, we want to serve everyone, so we now offer socially distanced indoor and outdoor seating, delivery, and takeout.

And to our state and local leaders, all I’m asking for is some support. These decisions have a tremendous impact on small businesses and we need guidelines in place to help us navigate reopening safely and effectively. We need to know how to serve our guests safely, and what options exist for those times when a guest refuses to comply with our rules. Without that guidance, restaurant owners are left in the dark, trying to figure out how to navigate a dining landscape that is now more complicated than ever.

In the meantime, I will continue to do everything I can to ensure the safety of my staff and guests. My restaurants are located in food halls, which makes enforcing my rules a little more difficult, but I will continue to suggest mask wearing and social distancing at Roots whenever possible until more people have been vaccinated and medical experts say it’s safe to ditch the masks.

We have gotten this far together, let’s find a way to continue on the right path.

Tiffany Derry is chef-owner at Roots Chicken Shak and the forthcoming Roots Southern Table. Derry was a contestant on the seventh and eighth seasons of Top Chef, serves as a judge on Top Chef Junior and Top Chef Portland, and is a regular advisor on Bar Rescue.

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