La Hacienda, Benton location

Under the Phase 1 guidelines for restaurants in Arkansas issued by Governor Hutchinson, patrons must wear a face-covering until the food or drink is served. Each employee who directly interacts with patrons must wear a face mask that completely covers the nose and mouth. Also stated in the directive is that service may be declined to patrons not wearing masks.

Earlier this week, La Hacienda’s Benton location decided to open its doors without making any announcements. According to the company’s Facebook post from yesterday evening, they did this to “be on the safer side and less crowded.”

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“We were open Monday and Tuesday just to try it,” La Hacienda owner Israel Alvarez told us. “And we just saw how people responded. Some people want to wear the mask, and some people don’t. Some left.”

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“We are doing our best to follow all the guidelines and new rules, but due to an incident tonight we will be closing our doors until further notice,” the Facebook post stated. “We respect and care for our employees, their families, and our customers to the extent that we have provided masks for the entire community and have them sitting at the front entrance. We will be honest and say several customers do not want the masks and have walked out. We apologize for any incidents, we cannot force someone to do something they do not wish to do. Therefore, we will continue curbside, drive-thru, and delivery only until further notice. Thank you to those who understand this stressful and difficult time, we are all doing our best. Everyone have a blessed night and stay safe.”

Hutchinson said at his COVID-19 press update Thursday that he’d dined out and personally seen customers curse at wait staff for being asked to wear a mask, and called the behavior “unacceptable and embarrassing.” He said the mask was to protect others, and the resistance to wearing one “selfish.”

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Alvarez said the restaurant had received messages of support today. “All our loyal customers, we love them,” Alvarez said. “And they love us. We don’t want to lose anyone. We want to see everyone come back. … We see that a lot of people don’t care. You go to Walmart and people don’t wear masks, and I see the [number of] cases going up. What are they thinking?”

“The money, we don’t care,” Alvarez said. “But one life, you don’t recover.”

Many restaurants are struggling to just stay open right now. For some restaurants, 33 percent is just three or four tables. These directives are not optional for restaurants. They could be reported to the health department for not following safety regulations. Many restaurant employees across the state are making very little money right now. They still have rent to pay and kids to feed. They didn’t ask for this. These aren’t their rules. They shouldn’t be punished for following them.

Stephanie Smittle contributed reporting to this article.

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