Off With the Masks?

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Life as we knew it changed March 2020 in the Rio Grande Valley with the arrival of COVID-19. Residents and business owners adapted as quickly as they could, donning face masks to ward off the coronavirus and revising strategies to stay afloat and support their community.

“We adapted to the challenge because of the fantastic team and the brand and the market,” said Shirley Bralley, marketing director at Charlie Clark Nissan. “We gave back to the community a lot to let them know we were supporting what was going on. It was a challenge, but we fared well.”

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened Texas in March 2021 by lifting the mandate to wear masks in public places and increasing capacities in all businesses, RGV companies took matters into their own hands.

“We made an immediate decision to continue to do business as we had been and to continue to follow guidelines to protect our employees and customers,” Bralley said. “We respect the governor and what he is saying, but we will continue to disinfect vehicles before and after people are in and continue to wear masks until further notice.”

What that further notice might look like remains a mystery for everyone here.

“We were surprised — we were worried about how that’s going to affect us because we still need to get our customers and our employees protected,” Saul Sanchez, co-owner of Carats in McAllen, said of the end of the mask mandate. Carats still encourages masks to be worn by both employees and customers. “So far, we haven’t had any issues. Everybody walking into the store, they wear a mask. We haven’t seen any big change on that.”

Carats follows disinfection procedures for its jewelry, utilizing an ultraviolet light over the items, and adheres to social distancing guidelines whenever possible.

Sanchez says he doesn’t anticipate anything changing about the way Carats operates — mask-wearing included — until a majority of residents are vaccinated.

“I have some customers [who say], ‘I am already vaccinated,’” Sanchez said, commenting on any pushback the shop has received about its safety measures. “I say, ‘well, I am, too, but we still need to wear our masks.’ Nobody has complained yet.

“Everybody’s pretty reasonable and everybody respects that we still need to have our employees protected.”

Sanchez adds that Carats was one of many businesses in the region that enjoyed support from the community during the pandemic — and the push to buy local.

After the announcement that Texas was reopening, a slew of RGV businesses released statements and posted announcements on their social media to let patrons know they would still be following protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

“We’ve learned a lot in the last year, not only about the resiliency of our industry and team, but more importantly that we are stewards of our customers’ and employees’ health and well-being. We are more certain than ever before that we can operate safely even in the most adverse circumstances,” read a March 5 post from Chef Larry and Jessica Delgado of Salomé on Main in McAllen. “Our team members and purveyors will still be required to wear masks, and we are asking our guests to continue to wear them when not seated at their tables.”

When Suerte Bar & Grill posted March 3 that it would still be requiring masks at its three locations, the announcement garnered some 1,400 reactions on Facebook — a majority of them positive.

Suerte has implemented several safety procedures since the start of the pandemic, including a sanitation machine that sprays a mist at visitors as they enter, a touch-less, freestanding temperature check machine, a mask requirement whenever not sitting down, and frequent restroom checks and surface disinfectants.

“It was a really big eye opener,” Suerte Uptown manager Julian Aguilar said on the new protocols required. He added how normal it used to be for people to casually share drinks with each other just over a year ago.

“COVID’s been hard. It’s taught us a lot about family, our community, and taking care of our servers,” he said. “That’s been our biggest priority — using this platform to take care of our servers, bartenders, staff, kitchen, door people … I think just being able to give them a steady paycheck is enough for us. We’re family-owned. They take very good care of us.”

Time and time again, the sense of community and coming together has shone as the silver lining of the pandemic. That is also evident in vendor markets that continue to pop up throughout the region.

The Tres Lagos Farmer’s Market in North McAllen provides a venue for a collection of vendors. Cindy Treviño, property manager for Rhodes Enterprises and director for the market, prioritizes farmers, bakers, and other creators with handcrafted items for sale. When COVID-19 hit the Valley, Treviño canceled the April 2020 market. Vendors and shoppers returned in October 2020 — with new rules to the gathering that included masks.

“When we decided to open up the market again during COVID we wanted people in and out — we didn’t want people to stick around too much,” Treviño said.

Despite the recent reopening of the state and revised safety protocols, not much more has changed at the Tres Lagos market.

“Even though they lifted the mask mandate, we still haven’t changed our rules as far as the farmer’s market goes,” Treviño said. “It hasn’t hurt the visitors. We still have a big turnout.” Nearly 1,000 people showed up for the March farmer’s market.

Each vendor has a bottle of sanitizer handy and their booths are arranged to encourage social distancing. Masks for all are still required for the time being, Treviño said, and vendors have been restricted from offering samples of their wares.

“It’s a little harder for vendors to sell when they can’t sample,” she said. “If we bring that back, the vendors will be a lot happier. Then again, at our last market, our vendors sold out in 30 minutes to an hour — a lot of them did.”

The open-air setting of the market works in favor of this initiative. So does the increase of availability of vaccines. With COVID-19 vaccinations open for all adults in Texas as of March 29, normal might come sooner than anyone could have hoped.

“The vaccinations are going to be the biggest help to get everything back on track,” Suerte’s Aguilar said.

Amy Casebier