San Antonio restaurant pros say Greg Abbott's lifting of COVID restrictions puts workers in danger

A masked server carries out an order at San Antonio restaurant Clementine. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
A masked server carries out an order at San Antonio restaurant Clementine.
San Antonio's customer-facing foodservice workers — who have been in and out of work at Gov. Greg Abbott’s whim since last March — say his decision to drop the statewide mask mandate is terrifying.

Even though fewer than 7% of Texans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the Republican governor announced plans Tuesday to drop the mandate and lift all occupancy restrictions on businesses.

One in seven San Antonians work in the hospitality industry, and few of them have been inoculated against the virus that's so far claimed more than 44,000 Texans' lives, industry insiders warn.

“Until the state government is ready to step up and vaccinate all of those that are currently working in the food and beverage industry, they need to keep policies in place to protect these workers and the small businesses they support," said Joel Rivas, founder of Heard and the Saint City Culinary Foundation, a pair of nonprofits that offer healthcare services to hospitality industry professionals. "To open [the state] at 100% when less than 7% of Texans have been vaccinated is beyond me.”

What's more, people working in the food and beverage industry often have minimal access to health insurance, meaning they're on the hook for the hefty price tag that can come with contracting COVID-19.

“The large majority of these workers don’t have healthcare access, and it’s not as easy as saying, ‘Well, they can just go and find another job,’” Rivas added.

Anxiety, depression and substance abuse are rampant throughout the foodservice industry in normal circumstances. As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, potentially exacerbated by a hasty reopening, Rivas worries those problems will snowball.

As if lost wages and a lack of benefits aren't concern enough, many in the industry aren't in a position to quit work if their employers decide not to enforce mask rules when the mandate lifts on March 10.

“I feel for my employees, because people who aren’t vaccinated are most at risk and have the most to lose,” said Mike Nguyen, chef and owner of San Antonio's Noodle Tree restaurant. “I’m fortunately vaccinated because of my [pre-existing] condition, but I think [Abbott’s decision] is a selfish one."

He added: "I know for a fact people were still dining out when they were sick with COVID, and that won’t change. Now, [he’s] going to take away the main thing that protected each of us.”
click to enlarge Noodle Tree owner Mike Nguyen speaks with Erin Burnet of CNN about the pandemic last year. - Instagram / noodletreetx
Instagram / noodletreetx
Noodle Tree owner Mike Nguyen speaks with Erin Burnet of CNN about the pandemic last year.
Last year, Nguyen was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that begins in infection-fighting cells of the immune system. He made national headlines after publicly admonishing Abbott for prematurely reopening restaurant dining rooms in April of 2020.

“We're gambling with people's health, and I understand the need to try to stay afloat, but we have ask ourselves: at what cost?" Nguyen said at the time.

Now, nearly a year later, hospitality industry workers are again asking the same question.

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Nina Rangel

Nina Rangel uses nearly 20 years of experience in the foodservice industry to tell the stories of movers and shakers in the food scene in San Antonio. As the Food + Nightlife Editor for the San Antonio Current, she showcases her passion for the Alamo City’s culinary community by promoting local flavors, uncovering...

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