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Gov. Abbott’s Challenge to Dallas County Mask Mandate Shouldn’t Stop Restaurant Owners From Doing the Right Thing

As COVID continues to spike in the region, business owners have an obligation to act in the interest of public health

On Wednesday evening, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced he and Attorney General Ken Paxton are now petitioning the 5th Court of Appeals to strike down the mask mandate that Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins announced just hours earlier. No matter how that legal battle shakes out, the county’s restaurant owners have an obligation to require staff — and patrons — to mask up anyway.

Abbott has vehemently opposed the implementation of mask mandates on both the state and local level, and is currently facing lawsuits from a wide variety of government officials, private citizens, and activist groups challenging the governor’s position. Abbott has long insisted that “personal responsibility” is the answer to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is abundantly clear that the governor’s logic is deeply flawed.

That is crucial in this moment as hospitals struggle to keep up with the influx of patients caused by a spike in cases. Since March 2, when Gov. Abbott issued Executive Order GA-38 barring municipal authorities like Jenkins from implementing mask mandates, people in Dallas County and beyond have been left to make the decision on whether to wear masks individually, working from confusing guidance from state and federal authorities. That reliance on “personal responsibility” has led us to perhaps the most precarious point of the pandemic thus far — pediatric hospitals are nearing 100 percent capacity, beds in intensive care units are growing increasingly scarce, and thousands of new cases are reported in the state each day.

Research has indicated that restaurants are the kind of place where COVID-19 can spread rapidly, especially among the 46 percent of Texans who remain unvaccinated. An April analysis from the Centers for Disease Control found that COVID-19 spread more quickly — and death rates increased — in regions where mask mandates were lifted early or never existed at all. We have unequivocal evidence that mask mandates work to stem the spread of the virus, regardless of what the governor thinks.

The county-wide mandate that requires all businesses — not just restaurants — to require masks indoors makes their already difficult jobs just a little bit easier. There is strength in numbers, and when every business on the block is requiring masks, it’s a little bit easier for operators to stand their ground. For the next two weeks at least, ahead of a hearing on the Dallas County mask mandate set for August 24, businesses can tell customers who don’t want to wear a mask to take it up with Judge Jenkins, not the overworked waitstaff.

Throughout this pandemic, Gov. Abbott has made his reluctance to lead on this issue plain. He decries mask mandates as “government overreach,” while urging healthcare workers from other states to come to Texas and help solve the crisis that has almost certainly been exacerbated by his decisions. And once again, as with his previous COVID-19 restrictions, Abbott has left the state’s restaurant owners to fend for themselves as they navigate how to operate safely in the midst of a COVID spike.

It is frankly unfair that the operators of restaurants and other small businesses are forced to shoulder the burden of enforcing mask mandates and making decisions about how to best protect their employees from the virus. It seems especially unfair in light of all restaurant owners have already had to do, from closing their businesses to fighting with customers over masks, to minimize the virus’s spread.

It sucks, but masking up again is what has to happen if we are to have any hope of beating this virus. If Judge Jenkins’s mask mandate is rescinded, at least there is no legal barrier that prevents restaurant owners from implementing their own mask mandates. Some establishments have continued to require masks all along, despite kicking and screaming from anti-vaxxers and those who believe that COVID-19 is some sort of government conspiracy.

Amid of all this misinformation and political chaos, restaurants must play a role in mitigating the spread of the virus however they can. It is, of course, the right thing to do, but it’s also vital to the future success of the local restaurant industry. If the 50 percent of Texans who support mask mandates are staying out of establishments that refuse to follow the rules, that’s going to have a serious impact the financial future of those restaurants.

With any luck, district judge Tonya Parker will rule in favor of Jenkins and allow the city to move forward with its mask mandate until COVID-19 cases decline in the region. At a press conference on Wednesday, Jenkins’s legal team seemed confident that the order would prevail against any potential challenges from Abbott’s lawyers. The judge also indicated that, whether or not this executive order holds up in court, it is the only way to prevent more sickness and death in Dallas County right now. In Jenkins’s view, if lives are saved as this legal battle with Gov. Abbott is settled in the courts, successful or not, the fight was worth it.

If Abbott does, in fact, get his way and that mask mandate is struck down, restaurant owners have a seriously important question to ask themselves: Do they make a decision to protect the public health, or kowtow to a pseudoscientific political agenda that risks the lives of their employees and customers while threatening their own future economic survival?

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