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San Antonio’s businesses and chambers of commerce had mixed reactions to Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement Tuesday that he soon will end Texas’ statewide mask mandate and allow all businesses to open at full capacity.

The changes go into effect March 10.

“We applaud Governor Abbott for giving businesses the flexibility to make the decisions they feel are necessary to keep their employees, clients and customers safe and their businesses flourishing,” San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez said in a prepared statement.

Pointing to “improving COVID-19 numbers in the San Antonio region” and the increasing availability of vaccines, he said the chamber was “confident that our business community will continue to do everything possible to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all.”

His sentiments were echoed by Cristina Aldrete, president and CEO of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, who said the governor’s decision will allow restaurants and retail businesses that have suffered under the pandemic to “safely reopen.”

“After dealing with COVID for a year now, San Antonio businesses know the protocols they have to have in place for their employees to feel safe and give their customers the confidence to keep coming back,” she said.

Other business association leaders were incensed.

Marina Gonzales, president and CEO of San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the move “not only puts many vulnerable people at risk, it also poses a serious threat to our small business community,” who depend on consumers feeling confident in the safety of a business.

Abbott made his remarks Tuesday from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, where he said that the pandemic had reached a point where “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” he said.

By all metrics, the pandemic is still raging in Texas. More than 200 deaths were reported on average every day in the last week. Experts say the state is still a long way from reaching herd immunity, which would require some 70%-80% of the population to be fully vaccinated. Among the nation’s four largest states, Texas has the lowest full vaccination rate, at 6.5%.

Restaurants have been at the forefront of the debate over pandemic restrictions on businesses. Many San Antonio restaurant owners said they will continue to operate under self-imposed restrictions but that Tuesday’s development thrusts them back into a highly politicized fight.

“It just makes things more frustrating,” said Jennifer Dobbertin, who owns the restaurants Best Quality Daughter and Tenko Ramen. “It opens the floodgates for people to argue with you.”

She said the news spread like wildfire through her staff, prompting a flurry of texts asking her to clarify the restaurant’s policies. Her restaurants will continue to require masks and operate at 75% capacity, she said, although moving to that capacity from 50% last week already “felt a little hairy.”

“My staff is very afraid,” said Jody Newman, who owns The Friendly Spot Ice House. “Many have had uncomfortable confrontations over trying to enforce masks.” She said some longtime staff members had left over issues with customers and masks.

Abbott’s order leaves room for business to impose their own mask mandates on employees or customers, which San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a briefing Tuesday that he would urge local businesses to do.

But not all will do so. Shortly after the governor’s announcement, San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B put out a statement that it would continue to require employees to wear masks but only “urge” customers to do the same.

Abbott’s remarks did lay out some possibilities in which local restrictions could be put in place, including business restrictions. If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of Texas’ 22 hospital regions rise above 15% of the capacity in that region for seven straight days, a county judge “may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county.”

But even in those circumstances, businesses still must be allowed to operate at a minimum 50% occupancy.

Many owners said they were caught by surprise.

Newman, the owner of The Friendly Spot, said she had fielded calls throughout the day from staff and other restaurant operators seeking clarity on what the new measures mean. She said she is waiting to hear from the Texas Restaurant Association to hear its interpretation of the order, as well as for guidance from the City of San Antonio.

Louis Barrios, owner of Los Barrios Mexican Restaurant and three related eateries in the area, said he has struggled to get clarification on the order and how it relates to social distancing requirements.

In any case, he said, he doesn’t plan to open up fully yet.

“Just because you lift an order, it doesn’t change public sentiment,” he said. “Half of our customers aren’t ready for that. And we follow the marketplace.”

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.