‘Money before lives.’ Lifting of mask mandate worries minority workers in Fort Worth

Nichole Manna
·3 min read

Jenber Abeb hasn’t allowed customers inside of her Ethiopian restaurant in a year, and she’s afraid the removal of mask mandates will just drag her reopening date further away.

“They are putting money before lives,” Abeb said from the phone on Friday afternoon. As a reporter stood outside of her restaurant, Samson’s Market Bistro, 4307 Camp Bowie Blvd., she declined to go outside to talk.

“Everything I need to say I can say this way, it’s safer,” she said.

Abeb said her fears of getting COVID-19 got stronger when Gov. Greg Abbott announced the statewide mask mandate would be lifted on March 10. Abeb also knows that people of color could be put at even higher risk now.

Black workers make up about 1 in 6 of all front-line industry workers and, according to the Economic Policy Institute, represent higher employment in retail jobs and those such as public transit, warehouses and child care. Hispanic workers also make up a large sector of essential jobs.

Dennis Andrulis, an associate professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, said Abbott’s order is “a continuation of adding insult to injury with regards to the lack of attention paid to most vulnerable individuals.”

On top of already working the most essential jobs, the vaccination rate for Black and Hispanic residents in Tarrant County is 3.3% in some predominately non-white neighborhoods.

Andrulis said it’s worrisome that front line workers are often not paid a lot and now they’ll have to navigate how to handle the lifting of the mandates.

“They’re going to have to find some way to feel like they can remain safe while at the same time serving people who very well may be belligerent and demand that they be served without masks,” he said.

Derrick Walker of Smoke-A-Holics BBQ, 417 Evans Ave., said the store will still encourage masks, but he’s not willing to fight with people who come in without them.

Walker said 50% of his customer base lives in the neighborhood — the predominantly Black Hillside — and the rest come from other parts of the city. He noticed that the people coming from the nearby neighborhoods have remained masked.

However, two men (which Walker described as “white collar guys from probably downtown”) recently visited the barbecue restaurant for lunch without masks.

“I’m not worried,” he said. “My staff still continues to wear masks everyday ... we’re social distancing as much as we can.”

And, for those customers who don’t want to wear a mask, Walker said he’ll make sure they’re quickly served and sent back outside.

Only five people are allowed inside the restaurant at one time, and on Friday afternoon, a line of people wrapped around the building as they waited (all but one masked) for their turn to get inside.

May Pulpanyawong, who works at Tuk Tuk Thai, 3431 W. Seventh St., said she is worried about the lifted mandate. She takes customer orders from behind a plastic sheet that hangs over the restaurant’s counter.

“It’s safer with masks,” she said. “Many people want to eat inside but we can’t open the inside either because it’s not safe.”

She and the other five employees plan to get vaccinations when they’re able, but even after, the restaurant will continue to require masks, she said.

And, as for Abeb, she just hopes it will be safe enough to welcome customers back into her Samson’s Market Bistro this year.

“This was not the right thing for them to do,” she said. “Especially at this time. Why couldn’t they have waited for more people to be vaccinated?”