By Shira Hanau
(JTA) — When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that he would end the state’s 9-month-old mask mandate, the proprietors of Kosher Palate in Dallas decided they would adhere to his rules.
Customers would no longer be required to wear masks to shop, they wrote in a Facebook post March 4, two days after Abbott’s announcement. Staff members, however, would continue to wear masks while working.
Three days later, the proprietors revised their rules.
“Due to the constructive feedback we have received, Kosher Palate has decided to maintain the current policies of mask wearing through the Passover holiday,” the store wrote in a Facebook post Sunday.
The episode makes clear the high stakes of the latest phase of the coronavirus pandemic, as individuals and businesses return to their pre-pandemic behaviors, whether by dint of vaccinations, fatigue after a year of lockdowns or, as is the case in Texas, executive fiat. In the absence of state regulations, people like the owners of Kosher Palate are left to set their own policies — and in a place like Dallas, where political views span the full spectrum and masks have become a particularly partisan issue, all decisions have detractors.
“There’s three sides to the story,” Miriam Goldfeder, who co-owns the store with her husband, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We’re trying to be sensitive to the people who are ready to tear off their masks, at the same time try to be sensitive to the people who want to keep their masks on forever, and then there’s people in the middle who are not quite sure where they’re holding yet.”
For Kosher Palate, the Passover holiday starting this month added an unusual wrinkle to the mask decision: It’s the busiest time of year for the store, when many people who are not regular patrons might come to shop for special ingredients.
At the beginning of the pandemic, virtually all Dallas synagogues closed their doors. But as time went on, most Orthodox synagogues began holding services with safety precautions in place, as has been the case across the country. Few if any non-Orthodox synagogues in the city have resumed holding regular in-person activities.
During the leadup to Passover, Jews of all denominations make their way to Kosher Palate. Rabbi Ari Sunshine of Congregation Shearith Israel, a Conservative synagogue, was concerned about the many members of the community who would not feel comfortable shopping in the store for Passover if masks were not required.
“The folks who were concerned about health might not shop there during their busiest time of the year,” he said. “I thought it would actually put their business at risk.”
So he called the Goldfeders, whom he has gotten to know while shopping at the store frequently himself.
“When you have a good relationship, you pick up the phone and talk about it,” Sunshine said.
By the time he called, the rabbi said, the Goldfeders had already heard from enough people that they were ready to roll back the decision and require masks. Members of the community had been reaching out to the store through Facebook comments, messages and phone calls as soon as the decision to stop requiring masks was announced.
“It is a very small store square-footage wise, so there’s no way to safely distance from other people,” said one member of the Orthodox community in Dallas, who asked not to be named because of the small size of the Orthodox community. “We want to support them, but we also want to know that we’re going to be safe.”
In a place like Dallas, a largely Democratic-leaning city in a red state, political opinion within the Jewish community spans the spectrum, turning masks into a sometimes radioactive partisan issue. Just last week, the Dallas Jewish Conservatives political advocacy group announced it would co-host a party to celebrate the reopening of Texas including a mask-burning bonfire to mark the end of the state’s mask mandate. At the same time, many area synagogues have remained closed or required masks and distancing at services.
As the pandemic has worn on, some community members say the range of opinions about how to respond has widened.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was more of a united front,” said another member of the Orthodox community who also asked not to be named. “There’s definitely a difference among individuals; there are people who are having guests for Shabbat. A lot of it is political.”
Goldfeder said the backlash against the decision to lift the mask requirement was painful, especially given the role played by the store in providing kosher meals to those who had lost power and running water during last month’s devastating winter storm.
“It’s hard to be told that all the good work we have done is meaningless because of our original position on masks,” she said.
She also said Kosher Palate might still end its masks-required policy after Passover. As time goes on, Goldfeder said, she believes more people will be comfortable shopping in stores where masks are not required, especially as more people are vaccinated.
“Eventually the minority is going to be the people with the masks,” she said. “It’s going to take time for the shift to happen, and we will keep monitoring the situation as it progresses.”