Local businesses on board with mask mandate

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an executive order last week requiring all businesses in the city and county to force their employees, customers and other visitors to wear masks that cover their mouths and noses while on commercial properties. Most area businesses are behind the order. 

Gary Mosley is not a doctor. He just pretends to be one when he’s at one of his restaurants.

The Heights resident and owner of the Creek Group, which operates four bar-and-grill concepts in the area, is trying to take a lighthearted approach to a serious issue facing Houston and the rest of the world. COVID-19 has infected about 9 million people across the globe and led to about 500,000 deaths, and the number of local cases has spiked recently as most businesses in Texas have been open for nearly two months.

In an attempt to curb that trend and keep the Houston area’s hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by severe cases of the contagious upper-respiratory disease, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an executive order last week requiring all businesses in the city and county to force their employees, customers and other visitors to wear masks that cover their mouths and noses while on commercial properties. The order took effect Monday.

“We all wanted to be a doctor at some point in our lives, so let’s just enjoy it,” Mosley said.

Mosley said employees already were wearing masks at his restaurants, which include Cactus Cove in Timbergove Manor, Canyon Creek in the Washington Avenue area, Cedar Creek in Shady Acres and Onion Creek in the Heights.

Several other business owners in the area said their employees also have been wearing masks since they reopened following a countywide stay-at-home order that forced dining rooms, bars, entertainment venues and other non-essential retailers to close for much of March and April. In some cases, those businesses also required their customers to wear face coverings before this week.

Now all businesses must make the people on their premises wear masks or face fines of up to $1,000 per violation of the order.

“I think that we need to do whatever we can possibly do to stop the spread. And if wearing masks is what we need to try, then I think it’s necessary to try that,” said Susan Tate, the co-owner of Darlene’s Flower & Gift Shop at 10570 Northwest Fwy. “If I can keep somebody from getting it or keep myself from getting it, it’s a small price to pay.”

Of the nine local business owners who spoke to The Leader about Hidalgo’s mask mandate, all said they are complying with the order. Most said they also agree with the reasoning behind it, but not all.

Kathryn van der Pol, the co-owner of Liberty Hoepfl Garage at 4610 N. Shepherd Dr., said she is not convinced that wearing masks significantly reduces the transmission of COVID-19 for either the wearer or those around them. Local health officials have said the disease can be spread by asymptomatic carriers and that wearing a face covering helps protect others in close proximity, while also providing limited protection for the wearer.

Van der Pol said she and Liberty Hoepfl Garage are honoring the mask policy out of respect for Hidalgo’s authority, and because they want their customers to feel comfortable. But she said she doesn’t think businesses should be forced to police their customers.

“I just don’t agree with that,” she said. “I don’t think that is right, that business owners are going to be law enforcers, because if not, they’re going to have to pay a fine.”

Two local restaurant executives, George Joseph of Common Bond and Levi Rollins of Urban Eats, said the mask requirement is not ideal from an economic standpoint. It could discourage customers from dining out – although Hidalgo’s order does not require face coverings while eating or drinking – and Joseph said Common Bond takes on increased costs because it provides masks to customers who don’t have them.

But both said the need to keep their employees and customers safe during a pandemic outweighs the need to be more profitable. A handful of local restaurants have chosen to temporarily close recently after staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

“Following the simple, but essential, mask order is what is right and best; maybe not for my bottom line as a restaurant owner, but for our community and our fellow people,” Rollins said. “We will not sacrifice the health of our customers or staff to make a dollar, even if it means we close our doors.”

The local business owners said their customers have been compliant for the most part. Tate, 66, said she’s been surprised that people close to her in age, who are the most vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19, seem to be more defiant about wearing masks than younger generations.

Rollins said not wearing a mask in public is “irresponsible and selfish.” As of Monday, refraining from wearing one on a commercial property is a violation of local law.

With no vaccine for COVID-19, and no widespread effective treatments for it, that could be the case for the foreseeable future.

“At this point it’s everybody’s responsibility to curve this thing,” said Agricole Hospitality co-owner Morgan Weber, whose company operates Eight Row Flint, Coltivare and Revival Market. “I think (mask-wearing is) going to be a part of the new normal.”

Staff writers Betsy Denson and Zarah Parker contributed to this report.

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