Texas has been mask-free since the beginning of March, but it has created a standoff between business owners across the state trying to mitigate Covid-19 outbreaks and their customers.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced March 2 that he was lifting the mask mandate. A week later, businesses of all types were allowed to open to 100% capacity. On top of that, people who decide to not wear masks can’t be punished by law, Abbott’s mandate says.
“It’s amazing what people, what kind of people there are that will go out of their way to have their two cents put in that they’re against having to wear a mask,” said Wayne LaCombe, co-owner at Legends Diner in Denton, Texas. “I would imagine that 75% of the calls that we get are because the mask mandate has been lifted.”
Businesses in Texas have now become a battleground of sorts for wearing masks. There’s nothing – legally – telling people that they have to wear a mask inside. Private business, however, are still allowed to require masks at their discretion.
For business owners like LaCombe, who just want to keep their employees and customers safe, they tell CNN they’ve fielded vicious calls from strangers and some have even received death threats.
“It’s tough situation to be in, but we have to stand our ground,” LaCombe said.
One example is a woman arrested earlier this month in Galveston a day after the mask mandate was lifted. She refused to wear a mask inside a bank but also refused to leave when asked. She was arrested and charged with trespassing.
As of Monday evening, Texas has more than 2.7 million Covid-19 cases and more than 47,000 deaths, according to data by Johns Hopkins University.
One owner says he’s received threats
Mike Nguyen, owner of Noodle Tree restaurant in San Antonio, told CNN he’s mentally, physically and emotionally drained.
He said he’s made 20 harassment and threat reports in the last week. And it’s not just about the mask mandates, either.
Eight people were fatally shot in Atlanta last week, feeding the flames of anti-Asian sentiment that’s gotten out of control since the start of the pandemic.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have more than doubled during the pandemic, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Nguyen saw this firsthand. His restaurant was vandalized last week with statements like “Go Back 2 China” and “Kung Flu” spray painted on the building.
Nguyen also told CNN someone called him Thursday, stated his home address and told him they’re coming.
“You could tell the hate in the voice and the anger in it that it wasn’t something like someone just trying to troll or play around. It was real. They meant it,” he said.
His employees have been harassed as well, enduring name-calling and getting cursed at by customers.
Nguyen told CNN he doesn’t believe the governor has done enough, despite Abbott announcing that there’s no place for harassment and vandalism.
“So all this stuff that’s happening, all it’s done for those who disagree with what I said, you’ve proven me right,” Nguyen said. “I said that it would escalate. I said that it would cause confrontation and it all has happened, you know? And it’s gotten to this point.”
Yet, Nguyen says he does not resent the governor for lifting the mask mandate.
“If something happens, the blood’s on his hands,” he said.
‘We’re doing something right’
LaCombe, the co-owner of Legends Diner, told CNN Monday there have not been any physical confrontations or calls to police at his restaurant.
“Everything’s been just social media and phones and we hope it just stays that way,” he said.
Most of his clientele are people over the age of 50, a high-risk group for Covid-19. To show how serious his business was about wearing a mask, LaCombe put up a warning sign last week telling people they’d have to pay a $50 surcharge if he had to explain why masks are mandatory and a $75 if they disagreed.
As of Monday, LaCombe says he has not had to charge anyone either surcharge.
“If it becomes a need that someone is adamant about not wearing a face mask, we’ll just exit them out of the restaurant,” he said. “Our main business decision was to let people know that we’re safe.”
That doesn’t stop people from calling, though, to tell LaCombe and his employees they can’t demand mask wearing.
“By law they don’t have to wear a mask. So we are, in context, infringing on their freedom,” LaCombe said. “And I’m sorry, I am not one to go out there and infringe on anyone’s freedom, but your freedom is whether you want to come in here or not. That’s your freedom.”
And his response to people who say they’re chasing customers off?
“Well, those are the customers we do not want in our diner,” he said. “We want the people that believe in safety and they are looking for a safe place to go.”
LaCombe did say that weeks ago, the constant phone calls did upset his wife and made him dread coming to work. Since then, though, he said he looks forward to the phone calls.
“We’ve been open since the pandemic started,” he said. “We have not had a single virus outbreak or reaction to the virus in our diner since we’ve been open and we have employees that haven’t been vaccinated, so we’re doing something right.”
CNN’s Natasha Chen, Ashley Killough, Hollie Silverman, David Williams and Holly Yan contributed to this report.