On Aug. 3, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that customers of restaurants and bars (as well as gyms and movie theaters) would be required to provide proof of vaccination to be served indoors. The mandate, so far the only one of its kind in the nation, officially goes into effect Aug. 16, followed by an outreach campaign to educate businesses before enforcement begins Sept. 13. The initiative comes amid rapidly rising COVID-19 case numbers among unvaccinated people in the city and other parts of the U.S., compounded by the spread of the Delta variant.
Many restaurants had already begun holding their own debates over whether to require proof of vaccination. The highest-profile example is Danny Meyer’s New York–based Union Square Hospitality Group, which also has venues in Washington, D.C. It announced four days before de Blasio’s mandate that its restaurants would begin requiring proof for indoor dining Sept. 7. “Our top priority is the safety and well-being of our team members, our guests, and each and every member of our community,” the group said in a statement. “To keep all of us safe, we have implemented new health and safety protocols that go above and beyond our already strict standards.”
Elsewhere in the country, restaurant owners have been left to make their own calls, weighing factors such as the safety of their staff, local government guidelines and potential backlash from guests.
In New Orleans, which is under Louisiana’s statewide indoor mask mandate, owner and wine director Crystal Coco Hinds of Effervescence wine bar took it upon herself to require proof of vaccination indoors. The former nurse and grandmother of five, who heard about a child with no preexisting conditions dying of COVID at the local Children’s Hospital, said it felt like the right move. “It was weighing really heavily on me, and I wasn't going to wait for the mayor or the governor or someone else to tell me what to do,” Hinds said.
In addition to protecting those who are unable to get vaccinated, like children under 12 years old, her choice was also about the safety of her team. “This is my business, I have to make decisions that I think are best for my staff, for the city at large and for the community at large. … My staff has done everything for the last 17 months to protect the public. We’re asking them to give us the same courtesy.” Unvaccinated guests are welcome to sit in Effervescence's outdoor courtyard, which Hinds notes is safer for those individuals as well.
Across the U.S., venues that are opting to require proof of vaccination have been hit with backlash, sometimes in the form of negative reviews on platforms like Google and Yelp that can be tangibly damaging to business.
While Hinds acknowledges that government mandates like New York City’s can help shift the blame off of restaurants, she says that aside from a couple of out-of-towners, her clientele has been “super supportive.” One or two regulars who disagree with the policy respectfully wrote to Hinds explaining that they’ve chosen not to get the vaccine and don’t want to sit outside, so they’ll return once the policy is lifted.
With more than 4,000 new cases reported each day in Louisiana, a huge spike from the 300 to 400 range in June, guests have mostly been grateful for the extra protection. Even vaccinated individuals are increasingly choosing to be seated outdoors. Hinds says the courtyard had been empty for weeks due to the hot and humid weather, but last Friday, it was completely full of vaccinated patrons. “I think people were starting to get scared,” she said. Thanks to a mobile app called LA Wallet, Effervescence is able to easily check vaccine cards. New York and some other states have similar apps.
Things aren’t as simple in states like Texas, where the government has not issued a new mask mandate. At El Meson in Houston, the entire staff is required to be vaccinated, and about half of the team members opt to wear masks. But wine director Jessica Elaine Garcia, who runs the restaurant with her parents, doesn’t think they’d ever limit indoor dining to vaccinated guests.
Garcia worries about bringing the virus home to her three-year-old daughter, but to her, it’s strange to ask such a personal question in a hospitality setting. “It just seems a little weird to me, honestly. You should be able to sit down and get food whether you're vaccinated or not,” she said. “Now, do we wish people would get vaccinated? Hell, yes! And we definitely encourage whoever we come in contact with to do so.”
Depending on how case numbers progress, she says they’d be more likely to return to requiring guests to wear masks. “The unfortunate thing about this all is that there’s just so much mistrust of our medical professionals and of our government that people are ill-informed, misinformed, or just not informed at all,” Garcia said. “I think if we can focus on making people more knowledgeable and building that trust, that’s where it needs to start.”
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