Last Wednesday evening, after thunderstorms wiped out the typical Houston humidity, a group of 35 birthday celebrations filled every seat on the covered patio at Roma, a laid-back Italian restaurant in Rice Village. They dined on pasta and seafood and drank some bold Italian red wines. Other patrons passed under the fairy lights and ivy on the patio as they entered, some wearing masks when not required by the restaurant, and others without. The simple, rustic-style indoor dining room was half full and Italian music was playing softly overhead. Just a week after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate and allowed restaurants to open at 100% capacity, Roma looked like they could weeknight before COVID-19.
Just half a block away, D’Amico’s Italian Market Cafe, known for its southern Italian specialties and homemade pasta, appeared to be at a different stage of the pandemic. As with most other restaurants in the area, D’Amico patrons who weren’t seated were required to wear face coverings and bright yellow laminate panels were seated at all other tables in the dining room, indicating that ‘they were banned for social distancing. Of the tables available, approximately three-quarters were completed. In front of the restaurant, on a covered terrace where the tables were evenly spaced, the guests enjoyed wood-fired pizzas and copious pasta.
When Abbott lifted pandemic restrictions on businesses on March 10, he noted The Texans knew the ‘right thing to do’ and urged to continue wearing a mask, but left the decision to store owners and restaurateurs as to how or if they should continue to take COVID-19 precautions. As D’Amico’s continues to limit seating and demand face coverings in its dining room, Roma has opened to capacity and says arrived to hide mandates. While their decisions are different, their reasons are the same: The owners of both restaurants justify their choices as being in the best interests of their employees after an emotionally and economically trying year.
According to a survey by the Texas Restaurant Association, two thousand restaurants in the Houston area closed in 2020, and the National Restaurant Association estimates that from last February to January this year, Texas loss of 135,600 food service jobs. At the onset of the crisis, “supporting local restaurants” was a rallying cry, but enthusiasm subsided as the reality of a year-long crisis began to set in. The owners of D’Amico’s and Roma have sometimes worried during the pandemic that they would have to shut down for good. Over the months, D’Amico has reduced menu offerings and inventory, and reduced shifts. In Roma, owner Shanon Scott, who worked in the Houston restaurant scene for three decades, put everyone except the chef on leave for about six weeks after the dining hall began to shut down across the board. Status March 19, 2020. Scott was taking take out, running to cars and washing dishes. Cooks and servers at both restaurants were collecting unemployment benefits while landlords applied for federal paycheck protection loans and struggled to pay rent. Several Scott employees have had to rely on food banks to feed their families.
Scott said the experiment required opening to full capacity and removing mask warrants for diners inside the restaurant. While restrictions on businesses were in place, he had experimented with unique ways to increase revenue, including offering virtual wine dinners every Thursday night to those who order take-out, but said his staff still won only about half of what they usually did in the past. year. “We cannot choose between protecting our lives and our livelihoods,” he said. wrote in a Houston Chronicle opinion piece. “Today every restaurateur is faced with a dilemma that sits somewhere between a rock and a hard place. And no matter what they decide to do, their businesses will suffer.
Scott still demands that his thirteen employees, all rehired after companies were allowed to reopen at reduced capacity in May, wear masks at all times. They continue to disinfect tables and toilets on a regular basis. But he said the mask mandate for guests still seemed untenable and unenforceable in a restaurant: diners can’t wear masks while they eat or drink, and in Roma, the indoor dining area is the size of an average living room, with the distance between the door and the first table measuring only about three feet. “I’m not the mask police,” Scott said. “I am in the restaurant and hotel industry; I am not here to arrest people.
Since his opinion piece was published, he has received feedback online, but Scott said at least ten restaurateurs called him to thank him for speaking out about the realities of running a restaurant an year after the start of the pandemic. And the guests were also supportive. On the first evening, the mask’s warrant was lifted, Scott said many diners told him they had read the article and were there to support him.
Carlo Massimo, a waiter at Roma, said he supports his boss’s decision and feels safe. “The customer, you decide what you want,” said Massimo. “If everyone wears the masks a little more, I think it’s a little better.”
The health of their employees has motivated the father-daughter owners of D’Amico’s to continue to demand masks and maintain limited capacity. The virus has struck near our home: A former employee, who was married to a longtime bus boy, recently died from COVID. With some of its tables unused to maintain social distancing, the dining room is still only operating at around 50 to 60% of capacity, and staff are making less money than before the pandemic. But those I spoke to were prepared to continue with restrictions. “Money is a big deal, but the staff, I think for the most part, are okay with keeping it as it is because we all care about each other,” said Chris Miyamoto, the restaurant manager.
Brina D’Amico, who has worked the restaurant since it opened in 1996 and now runs it with her father, said she received “a ton” of calls after Abbott’s announcement asking them what they were planning to do. Most favored maintaining the restrictions, but D’Amico and staff braced for the pushback, even writing a script to use in the event of an explosion. So far, no diners have become confrontational at D’Amico, but this has not been the case at other restaurants in the area who have continued to demand masks. Last week in League City, just south of Houston, a man stabbed a Jack in the Box employee who asked him to leave after refusing to put on a mask, police said. And the staff at Picos, a Mexican restaurant a mile and a half from D’Amico’s, calls and emails received threatening to report its employees to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after saying it would continue to require masks.
“We knew we were going to upset some of them, but we felt like we were going to upset more people by removing the mask mandate,” D’Amico said. “And ultimately, we wanted to make sure we kept everyone safe. ”
The owners of both restaurants said business is picking up, and they consider themselves lucky to be among the restaurants left standing a year after the start of the pandemic. Miyamoto said that even with reduced capacity continues. D’Amico’s started hitting numbers it hadn’t seen since before COVID. And Scott said Roma is also getting closer to its pre-COVID numbers, now serving around 75 percent of the total number of diners he used to see on weekends.
As closing time neared at D’Amico’s last Wednesday evening, restaurant patrons David and Whitney Ambrus finished wine on the terrace. The couple said they agreed with Abbott’s decision to lift the requirements, but expected every restaurant to still require masks and wear them out of respect, in case they were seated at the interior. “I just got used to it,” David said, shrugging his shoulders.
The couple both contracted COVID in October. While Whitney recovered after a few days, David was knocked out for weeks. “I had enough trouble knowing I didn’t want it anymore,” said David, taking a sip of the wine. He then waved to the waiters and other diners. “That’s why I’m like, okay, I’m going to wear a mask. I’ll be respectful because I don’t want them to get it.