‘It’s Not Safe For Anyone’: Restaurant Employees Say Bosses Forbid Face Masks

Photos courtesy Hillstone Restaurant Group

“We are scared.”

The story started with a tip submitted through our news tip form – but by Sunday evening, we heard from many now-former and current employees of Hillstone Restaurant Group’s Dallas locations, who said they are not allowed to wear masks while working as a company policy.

The California-based hospitality group owns Hillstone, the Honor Bar, and R + D Kitchen in Dallas, and Houston’s in Addison, and has apparently made it a company policy to not allow the face coverings, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It is true. We’re not allowing masks,” the R+D Kitchen manager we spoke to Friday night, who identified herself as Emily, said.

When asked if she was worried for her safety, or had heard any waitstaff expressing worry, she said, “We stand behind our decision. Thank you for your curiosity, but we stand behind this, and we’re doing the best we know.”

HRG’s corporate website outlines the safety precautions its Texas locations are currently using.

“Current orders do not require our staff to wear face masks. If you are concerned about your safety in this respect, we hope you will join us at a later date,” it says.

While masks have been strongly encouraged by Dallas County health officials and the CDC, they are not mandatory, and Gov. Greg Abbott stopped short of requiring them in his plan to reopen the economy.

However, in the state’s guidance for restaurants, it does say that if staff and patrons cannot maintain a six-foot distance, face masks should be used.

“Have employees maintain at least 6 feet separation from other individuals. If such distancing is not feasible, measures such as face covering, hand hygiene, cough etiquette, cleanliness, and sanitation should be rigorously practiced,” the guide said. 

Attempts to reach HRG’s corporate office for comment on the rationale behind the move were unfruitful.

While the science behind the recommendation has been debated, a face mask has become a common sight among most state and local officials when they appear in public.

The CDC’s recommendations came last month after evidence increasingly showed that the virus could be spread by asymptomatic carriers – in fact, the agency says that as much as 25% of all transmissions may be asymptomatic, meaning they never show symptoms, according to NPR.

“We just wanted people in the community who have dined with us a lot to know we are not safe. It’s not safe for anyone. We should at least been given a choice.” – Hillstone Restaurant Group employee

And while hospital-grade masks are going to do the best job of stopping the aerosol droplets from a carrier from entering another person’s body, many scientists and doctors have said that something is better than nothing, especially since up until now, most haven’t had access to testing unless they were displaying symptoms.

The mask – even a fabric one – will catch most of the droplets from a sneeze or cough, which means, doctors say, that if you are asymptomatic, you are protecting the people around you by wearing a mask.

“It’s not going to protect you, but it is going to protect your neighbor,” Dr. Daniel Griffin, an expert on infectious diseases at Columbia University, told NPR. “If your neighbor is wearing a mask and the same thing happens, they’re going to protect you. So masks worn properly have the potential to benefit people.”

An employee who spoke to us on background said that most if not all had been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement at the time they were hired, and were worried about retribution. We were also told that the rule applied to both front of house and back of house staff, and that gloves were not allowed unless it was already required by health code.

The same employee told us that anyone that requests to use masks or gloves are being denied hours, but it’s being counted as a refusal to come into work, which puts unemployment claims in jeopardy.

Other staff members from the three restaurants spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, worried about their jobs or potential backlash.

“We are scared,” one employee told us. “Please don’t use my name, I have to have a job. We just wanted people in the community who have dined with us a lot to know we are not safe. It’s not safe for anyone. We should at least been given a choice.

“We had a peak day in Dallas on Thursday. This is scary.”

Another employee indicated that they had been fired, and added that anyone who says they don’t want to come in because they won’t make enough in tips (Abbott’s current order limits restaurants to 25% of their capacity), or is uncomfortable working without a face mask risks being able to come back when the crisis is over, too.

“One manager just told me that anyone who declined the offer of full-time employment, either due to financial issues (because 25% capacity of full time without unemployment benefits is not viable) or lack of PPE will not be eligible for rehire when this is over,” another employee said.

Another employee said that they were told the masks did not “go with the style” of the company’s eateries.

“I hesitate to use the word ‘fired,'” another kitchen staffer said. “Probably furloughed would be a better word. If we’re not comfortable coming to work without a face mask, we are not being scheduled for hours. And that’s what we’ve been told so far.”

The same employee said that they were told when their manager called them to come back to work, they were told it was corporate policy to not allow face masks.

“I told her I was extremely uncomfortable with that,” the employee told us. “She told me to take a little bit of time to think, think it over. So I hung up, I talked to my husband about it and we decided that I couldn’t go back to work under those conditions.”

Her decision, she said, came because her family had a little bit of breathing room financially – but she knows most of her coworkers are now faced with either working without a mask but bringing in a little money, or not working at all.

“We have a little bit in savings. He’s still employed and bringing in a paycheck,” she added. “I know a lot of my coworkers do not have that privilege or if they do, they’re going to be put in a really tight spot pretty immediately.”

All of the employees we spoke to said that they were surprised by the company policy, because prior to the pandemic, they would classify the company as a great employer that offered better-than-most benefits.

When we first shared what we learned on social media, many readers had opinions.

“If the restaurant owner, manager, host, cooks/chefs, wait staff not wearing masks is a HUGE OPTICS RED FLAG! as though they are careless..makes you wonder if they have always been careless in the seating, cooking, serving your food, or quality of food. NOPE. I would pass,” said Liz Durrant.

“If a restaurant doesn’t want to require masks, fine. People can choose not to go there and many won’t. But to not allow your employees to wear masks is disgusting,” said Daphne Street.

“The marketplace will force their hand or a COVID infection among them to close down again,” chimed in Rich Henderson. “Some people got to learn the hard way. They are not only putting their customers at risk but also their employees. There is no sound reason to disallow employees from wearing masks if they want to themselves individually.”

“Servers not wearing masks right now is a deal-breaker for me,” said Debra Rountree.

“Any of their servers could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus,” Winnie Arthurs said.”It’s incredibly irresponsible of them and I hope they don’t sicken (or kill) a customer.”

Our sister publication, D Magazine, provided these FAQs about dining during the pandemic.

46 thoughts on “‘It’s Not Safe For Anyone’: Restaurant Employees Say Bosses Forbid Face Masks

  • May 3, 2020 at 9:18 pm
    Permalink

    Please stop promoting fear. The city of Dallas has a population of 1,345,000 people as of 2018. It currently has 4,133 Coronavirus cases reported. That means .00307 of the population have been infected or .31%. In other words, 99.69% of the population is not infected. If the news would stop selling fear 24/7, perhaps the employees would start to look at the real numbers and realize the risk is low.

    Coronavirus numbers: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

    Reply
    • May 3, 2020 at 11:48 pm
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      The entire state of Texas has only tested 390,000 people as of me writing this post.

      With that little testing being done, there is no way those numbers are that low, not to mention the fact that not many places in the US are testing people who don’t have symptoms, despite the virus being contagious but showing no symptoms for up to two weeks.

      It’s impossible to know who is sick and who isn’t. The fact of the matter is that this virus has killed more people in a month and a half than the flu kills in a 6 month long flu season on average, and it is capable of killing anyone, of any age, of any measure of health.

      Reply
      • May 4, 2020 at 5:07 pm
        Permalink

        @David

        You would have to quadruple the number of cases to just get over 1%. And my numbers were based on a 2018 estimate where we know the overall population numbers are now higher. Plus, the risk rates across the state are even lower once you get outside the cities of Dallas and Houston. Your argument is even weaker once we get outside the city so you don’t want to bring up the whole state as the numbers are even less for the percentage of population that has been infected.

        The idea that we can’t track the numbers is ridiculous. That is just promoting hysteria and not based on sound reason. If that were really true, we wouldn’t even bother putting together numbers at all. The reality is we do have a good idea of what is going on because we have been watching it for almost 2 months.

        The whole state of Texas has had 892 deaths and the epidemic had its first case in Texas on March 4th. So it has been with us for roughly 2 months. So we are averaging 14.86 deaths a day for the entire state. In Dallas, we have had 114 deaths which is roughly .53 deaths a day. So not even 1 person a day. To put that in perspective, we average 10 deaths a day on our Texas roadways due to auto accidents. This site https://www.dhillonlawfirm.com/car-accidents/dfw-statistics/) says Dallas had 197 fatalities due to car accidents in 2017 alone. This means they were averaging .54 deaths a day which is just slightly higher than the .54 deaths from Corona. Yet, I doubt you are calling to shut down the highways and take everyone’s keys away.

        @GO FOR IT JOHN

        I did just come back from Oklahoma with family and we ate out at a number of restaurants. 1 restaurant wore masks and the others did not. Life was actually pretty normal there. They were honoring a 25% occupancy rule but otherwise it was much like things were prior to the Corona hysteria. I wouldn’t have a problem with going to Hillstone if their staff isn’t wearing masks.

        The issue here isn’t whether people can decide to go to a restaurant or not. Obviously they can. The issue is that many of you feel compelled to lecture others on their decisions or vilify restaurateurs that don’t accept your dogmatic viewpoints. There is a certain smugness that comes with that attitude that deserves to be called out especially from those who don’t even realize what the risk levels actually are.

        Reply
        • May 4, 2020 at 11:58 pm
          Permalink

          Thank you! I am sitting here crying my eyes out tonight thinking how can I go back to my serving job if I am forced to wear a mask for 8 hours – I have major claustrophobia and other PTSD issues with my mouth being covered – I don’t think I can do it – I haven’t left my house since March 13th and I don’t want to leave now because I am more scared to wear a mask and the emotional issues surrounding it for me – and yes – those issues have now consumed me far more than catching Covid… I live in Chicago by the way – but clearly distressed enough about this to be looking for some insight through the internet tonight! Be well!

          Reply
        • May 6, 2020 at 10:22 pm
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          Whether or not you think the fear is justified, do you think it’s right that the restaurant is not even allowing employees to wear masks? Not requiring them is one thing, but not allowing employees who feel more comfortable wearing them to do so is disgusting. I would not patronize this restaurant even if I had no concern whatsoever about catching coronavirus.

          Reply
    • May 4, 2020 at 2:27 am
      Permalink

      That’s 0.31% *during the period of enforced social distancing*. The risk absolutely increases when businesses re-open, and the risk is much higher for the population of foodservice workers.

      They’re also not just afraid for themselves — they’re afraid for their families and friends, and they’re afraid for the other customers they could unknowingly transfer the virus to in the course of the working day.

      Reply
    • May 4, 2020 at 6:38 am
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      Spoken like a true trump supporter.

      Reply
    • May 4, 2020 at 7:16 am
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      John – that’s assuming every single person in Dallas has been tested. The biggest testing facility in Dallas is testing only 30-40 tests a day. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2020/04/17/a-dallas-lab-has-been-testing-for-coronavirus-for-weeks-heres-what-its-busiest-month-was-like/

      I’d really hoped that All Lives Matter wasn’t just a saying. “the risk is low” is the mantra that’s been pumped out since January, but this has been worse than the flu while in a lockdown.

      Reply
    • May 4, 2020 at 10:34 am
      Permalink

      Really, promoting fear??? Sounds more like a bunch of thoughtless and careless people that are making bad management decisions. Or this is just a case of the young and foolish managers with a POWER TRIP. Just because they have the authority to make those decisions and prohibit staff from wearing masks does not mean that it’s the right choice, nor does it mean that it’s safe. Some people in the service industry have their head so far up their behind that they can see what they had for lunch!!!!
      Ohh, by the way my girlfriend is a respiratory therapist and you know what stories aren’t in the news…???? A story about the insane amount of patients, lack of beds, lack of vents , shortage of staff, etc!!! She literally had 25 vents/people to take care of on her own!!! Put that in the news. Have a nice day everyone.

      Reply
    • May 4, 2020 at 11:12 am
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      So I guess John will be taking his children and grandparents to Hillstone then since its all gravy.

      Reply
    • May 4, 2020 at 1:50 pm
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      But why would someone be forbidden from PPE that will protect that from something that is devastating and known to exist in their area? People still need to take precautions. Right now wearing a mask is like wearing a seat belt, but instead of protecting you it protects others.
      Knowing that this will probably be around until a vaccine comes why would you suggest something that would accelerate the growth? Let’s think big picture here.

      Reply
    • May 8, 2020 at 11:08 pm
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      It’s over 5,000 cases now with 5 consecutive days of record highs for new cases.

      Remember when the president said there were 15 cases in the country that would be close to zero in a couple of days? That was 1,321,785 78,600 cases and 78,000+ deaths ago. We lead the world in both cases and deaths because of a lack of testing and a lack of urgency.

      Reply
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  • May 4, 2020 at 12:21 pm
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    This article is irresponsible at best, potentially libelous at worst.

    Reply
    • May 4, 2020 at 3:49 pm
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      Honey, there is no irresponsibility in reporting facts. Libel definition: A published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation; a written defamation. So that also does not apply.

      Reply
    • May 6, 2020 at 10:23 pm
      Permalink

      How is it libelous? The manager said it was true.

      Reply
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  • May 4, 2020 at 1:20 pm
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    I’m choosing to “Do the Next Right Thing” for me ❤️

    ● I want you to know that I am educated enough to know that I could be asymptomatic and still give you the virus.
    ● No, I don’t “live in fear” of the virus; I just want to be a part of the solution, not the problem.
    ● I don’t feel like the “government is controlling me;” I feel like I’m being a contributing adult to society and I want to teach others the same.
    ● The world doesn’t revolve around me. It’s not all about me and my comfort.
    ● If we all could live with other people’s consideration in mind, this whole world would be a much better place.
    ● Wearing a mask doesn’t make me weak, scared, stupid, or even “controlled.” It makes me considerate.
    ● When you think about how you look, how uncomfortable it is, or what others think of you, just imagine someone close to you – a child, a father, a mother, grandparent, aunt, or uncle – choking on a respirator , alone without you or any family member allowed at bedside.
    ● Ask yourself if you could have sucked it up a little for them.

    Copied and posted.

    Reply
  • May 4, 2020 at 6:00 pm
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    It is disappointing that an establishment as consistently amazing as Hillstone/Houston’s would show so little regard for its employees. When people are concerned not only about their livelihoods but also their LIVES I would hope that a facility I frequented would care enough to allow…no, to encourage, even to REQUIRE…that their employees take every precaution against this still largely unknown, highly contagious, deadly disease. And not just for their employees’ sakes; but also for their customers’. I find it surprising that the owners of Hillstone/Houston’s would take this stance given they are in California where face masks are required by law of everyone out in public. Hopefully the case of callousness is just a matter of local ignorance and doesn’t extend through the entire company. Either way, to my own dismay I won’t be patronizing Hillstone/Houston until/unless corporate remedies this lack of empathy and common sense in the name of public safety and health!

    Reply
  • May 4, 2020 at 8:14 pm
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    I worked for this restaurant group in NYC and I am a hard worker. The people I worked under were despicable and the regional manger (previously fired and brought back for unknown reasons) was fired again shortly after I quit. It does not surprise me they do not care about patron’s or staff’s health. You may say this is overblown but as a researcher I can take a nice guess that you do not understand what you are reading. Yes, risk is low now, but this will not be the case when the country beings to reopen. It does not hurt anyone to allow workers to wear a mask, even if it simply makes them feel safer. Anxieties are high and the EXPERTS at the CDC recommend it. You can get better quality food for better prices so many other places. I know the food and beverage industry is “tough” but this is known as the worst place to work among NYC waiters and bartenders. Most repeat customers liked it because of the in-house only advertising. Patrons learned quickly they could get almost any or everything comp’d from their bill if they complained. Most of the regulars did and then the tip (which we must live on – $2.75 an hour wage) would be zero on top of the zero bill, after waiting on them for hours. And the waiters could not complain, we had to continue to treat them as though they were royalty even when we knew they would leave nothing. I am all for wait staff getting a livable salary and doing away with tipping. Just know that would increase the price of the food but it should not be a patron’s responsibility to pay a wait staff’s salary with tips. Restaurant staff should be allowed to have off days too, or be in training, or even just be mediocre at their jobs. I know plenty of people who are paid very well and let the majority of their co-workers do their work and they still make a good salary.

    Reply
  • May 5, 2020 at 10:54 pm
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    This can’t be the only place to dine in in this part of Texas?!? Is this the only place to work in this part of Texas? I woulda surmise that the patrons looking for a dining establishment of which they are uncomfortable with the staff not wearing a piece of cloth over their face could find an alternative dining location and the staff who need to wear a mask to feel comfortable to go to work would be able to find somewhere else to work where they could wear the mask. Not really seeing the story

    Reply
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  • May 7, 2020 at 2:11 am
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    I get it I am claustrophobic and have OCD but I was in a wreck breaking my neck and several other bones I broke my c2 and it’s a miracle I am alive the brace made me crazy but removing it was life threatening covid 19 is a weird virus but you might kill someone suck it up by not wearing it you are saying my irrational fear is more important than your life its rude

    Reply
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  • May 7, 2020 at 5:16 pm
    Permalink

    Pretty simple story BJ. The CDC recommends masks to mitigate the spread of disease. This is especially important for people in contact with the public.

    Employees want to follow the recommendation but management won’t let them. This puts their customers, the employees, and their families at risk. It’s a story in the news because most businesses are not comfortable treating their customers and employees in a negligent fashion, thank goodness.

    Reply
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