A Texas woman said she and her husband were told to leave a Texas restaurant because they were wearing masks in an effort to protect their four-month-old son, who has cystic fibrosis.
Natalie Wester told TODAY Food she and her husband, Jose Lopez-Guerrero, were out with friends a couple weeks ago and were wearing masks as a "preventative measure" while waiting for food to arrive. Their son was not with them; he was being babysat by her mother.
Wester said the outing was a rare date night for her and her husband, since they are new parents. They went to Hang Time Bar & Grill in Rowlett, Texas, with a couple of friends. While entering the restaurant, Wester and her husband were asked to remove their masks and Wester believed it was so the staff could check their IDs.
"She mentioned something about removing our masks and taking them down, and I just assumed that was because she was speaking with us regarding our IDs, it was related to that," Wester said, noting that there was a band playing live music which made it difficult to hear. "So we did take the masks down for that, we put them back up and went to our table."
Wester said, a few minutes later, after ordering some drinks and an appetizer, another staff member approached their table.
"Our waitress came down and sat next to me and she said, 'You know, our manager sent me over here because I'm nicer than he is about the situation, but he feels that this is very political. He does not like the mask. You're going to need to remove the mask if you want to be in here,'" Wester recalled. "My husband and I had never heard anything like this before, even in Texas."
"So we explained to the waitress about our son … And she really didn't even give us an option," Wester continued. "She said, 'Well, if this is something that's going to be an issue, then I'm just going to close your check.'"
Wester said she and her husband "didn't want to make a scene" or ruin her friends' night. The other couple, who were not wearing masks, did stay at the bar, but Wester and her husband left. Shortly after getting home, Wester wrote a post about her experience and shared it on a local Facebook page as a review of the establishment. Later, she shared the post on her own Facebook page, where it went viral.
"I in no way intended to slander his business or be rude and aggressive … But I wanted to explain my frustrations, because I do feel like this kind of mentality that the owner has has contributed to the really high numbers of COVID in Texas," Wester said. "I was just very frustrated, so I made a post."
For much of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts have cautioned against indoor dining, since masks cannot be worn while eating. While it's considered to be a safe activity for vaccinated people, experts say unvaccinated people should avoid dining out right now, and people in areas with high transmission should remain cautious. Precautions like increasing ventilation or masking when not eating can make indoor dining safer.
The owner of the bar, Thomas Blackmer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TODAY. He did acknowledge in a Facebook comment that he wasn't allowing masks inside his bar. Blackmer has also shared anti-vaccine and anti-mask content on social media.
In an interview with KTVT, a local TV station, Blackmer said that he didn't "want any masks" in the establishment, which he had put his "money" and "blood, sweat and tears" into. While there aren't any signs stating Blackmer's policy in the restaurant, KTVT reported that the establishment's host asks guests to remove their masks at the door.
"I feel the overall reaction with masks is ridiculous in the United States right now," Blackmer told KTVT. "So when they put their masks on the other night, they were reminded that they were asked at the front to take it off. They didn’t want to, so we asked them to leave."
Blackmer told the Washington Post he has dealt with a wave of severe backlash, including his address being shared online, which led to him moving, and vitriol so intense, he temporarily shut down the restaurant's Facebook page. On his own Facebook page, Blackmer said he was dealing with calls and threats. But he doesn't regret enforcing the ban, he told the Post.
Wester said that while she and her husband were told that their wearing masks was perceived as political, they believe it's Blackmer's response that was politically motivated.
"I know that a lot of people here in Texas have an issue wearing a mask, but to be told that we can't be in an establishment because we want to put our masks on, we couldn't believe what we were hearing," she said.
Wester said, since the post has gone viral, she and her husband have been overwhelmed with the public response. Some people have reached out in support, while others have criticized her and her husband by pointing out that they were already engaging in activity that could put their son at risk by indoor dining. However, Wester told TODAY their family's doctors had encouraged living life normally, just with some extra precautions.
"They've just advised us to be a little extra cautious when we're going out and use our brains and make decisions as we feel appropriate, and that's why we left," Wester said. "They haven't told us to stay away from (specific activities)."
Wester said the positive response has so far outweighed the negative commentary.
"A lot of people have reached out who have children with cystic fibrosis, a lot of mothers and fathers have been very encouraging and supportive telling us that they support us and that they understand how difficult it can be to have a child with some special needs and to try to manage your relationship and social life and the well-being of your child," Wester said. "We definitely have some supporters, which has been a nice relief from the tons of hate we've been getting."