Right now, businesses – especially restaurants – are navigating uncharted waters.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to rescind the mask mandate and capacity limits is forcing them to address some important questions: How can customers feel confident about dining out now? And what is the industry doing to keep employees and customers safe?
NBC 5 spoke with Laura Rea Dickey, CEO of Dallas-based Dickey's Barbecue Pit, for insight.
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She's in a unique situation. With locations in 44 states, she's already experienced mandates being lifted in other places. And she's noticing trends that point toward a continued demand for safety.
For example, when Florida went to 100% capacity in the fall, they still saw huge online and delivery sales.
“That’s definitely a signal to us that some guests are ready and they want to be there and others still are not,” she said. “What we saw with our guests was that there are varying levels of comfort.”
With the choice of wearing masks now in the hands of both businesses and consumers, business owners are learning the next big challenge right now is finding a new balance.
For restaurants at least, Dickey said many of the protocols we see in the industry now aren't going anywhere.
"We will keep a lot of the measures in place. All of our pit crew members will still be in personal protective equipment, they will still have masks on. [We] will still keep distancing in our line to get your barbecue. Between our tables, you will still see the partitions up. You’ll still see hand sanitizer all over the dining rooms," she said.
Dickey said many dining rooms have already been reconfigured for added spacing and at least for her restaurants, that isn’t changing.
“So that there is a premium space between tables and partitions. We also used to have larger communal tables, we’ve broken those up,” she said.
But Dickey said the struggle now, will be for customers to go with wherever their comfort level takes them.
“I really think guests should go with what they’re comfortable with. If they are comfortable with delivery, I’d love to serve you barbecue from our website. If they are comfortable maybe venturing out, patios are an option. And if they are in one of the first vaccination groups and they feel confident enough and comfortable, a dining room is a good way to support business. I think that’s where it’s being sensitive to individual situations,” she said.
This week, the Texas Restaurant Association said it is talking to restaurants about best safety practices and how to communicate their policies.
“Our message to members really focuses on a couple of things. You’ve learned a lot about interacting with your guests and you learned a lot about what makes guests feel safe. So today is not a day to throw out all of those protocols and to go back to life on March 1,” said Emily Williams Knight, CEO of the TRA, during a virtual press conference on Tuesday. “Each of these restaurants needs to be really thoughtful and have a discussion with their employees and guests about interacting as they move forward.”
While there's excitement about getting more workers back on payroll, the TRA has also shared some concern about the push and pull between restaurants and customers that could take place.
“We’re all navigating uncharted waters in very difficult circumstances, and I think this is an instance where grace and communication and really thinking about what makes other people feel safe and comfortable is going to be incredibly important,” said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, vice president of government relations and advocacy for the TRA.
She added, “Everyone has strong opinions about the virus and what we need to be doing, but at the end of the day these are small businesses, and in many cases young employees just trying to do the best on that they can so let’s all show each other some of that patience and grace. We will continue to talk to our members about best practices, will continue to educate them on ways to communicate their policies.”
Doctors have also been vocal about the mandates being rescinded too soon. Dickey said she understands those concerns and like the TRA, is urging employees and customers to stay vigilant.
“I think it’s all about balance and being conscientious. While I think we absolutely have to look at these positive benchmarks and positive momentum, moving in the right direction -- it’s very important to realize that this is not a signal that everything is returned to a past normal,” she said. “But I really appreciate the balance, personal responsibility and opportunity that this measure signifies for us to be able to recover – for those that can.”
The governor is still keeping the same protocol for hospital regions across the state. If one of those regions is above the 15% threshold for hospitalizations after seven days, the county judge can bring all businesses back to 50% capacity.
According to Gov. Abbott, the state is about a month and a half out from having more vaccines than we have demand.
“I think we feel more comfortable today because of he amount of vaccine that is rolling out. And one of the things we’re working very hard on is to make sure that our restaurant employees are in that next round of vaccinations," said Williams Knight. "All of those things coming together will certainly give Texas restaurants, I think, a fighting chance compared to so many other parts of the country that are still dealing with significant capacity caps and lack of consumer trust."