“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.
“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.