It was the big caveat. In our August issue this year, we reported on an incredible rebirth of restaurants across America as vaccines went in arms and people started dining out free of fear again. After the darkest year of their professional lives, chefs, sommeliers and restaurateurs were tired but eager to serve people once more.
Here was the caveat: “Concerns remain, the biggest one being the large numbers of Americans who remain hesitant to being vaccinated. Because COVID-19 spreads so easily, even from people who show no symptoms, it’s possible the virus could surge again as people unmask. The more unvaccinated people who contract it, the more likely it is to mutate into a new variant that is resistant to the current vaccines.”
This wasn’t particularly prescient. In fact, it was obvious. The only way you stop a pandemic is widespread immunity. Today, just 55 percent of eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated. Large swaths of our nation have even lower rates. It’s not enough. (Thankfully, vaccines are effective against the Delta variant. Yes, there have been numerous cases of vaccinated people contracting Delta, but rates of hospitalization and death are much lower. The shots are doing their job.)
So it’s déjà vu all over again. Case numbers are soaring. Hospitals are running out of capacity. Parents are fretting as they send kids back to school. And restaurant owners are having to wrestle with how to keep staff and diners safe while also keeping their doors open. They’re having to make choices, and the biggest one right now is: Should customers need to show proof of vaccination in order to dine indoors?
On July 31, Danny Meyer announced that all restaurants in Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) except Shake Shack would require guests to be vaccinated. Just four days later, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a vaccine mandate for all restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters. On Aug. 12, San Francisco issued its own mandate. The same day, New Orleans issued its own rules—diners need to show proof of at least one dose or a recent negative COVID test.
In other cities, however, it’s up to restaurant owners to decide for themselves. Two weeks before New Orleans issued its rules, Crystal Coco Hinds, owner and wine director of Effervescence, instituted her own mandate. As she explained to my colleague Julie Harans, she’s a former nurse and grandmother of five, and when she heard about a child dying of COVID at the local Children’s Hospital, she felt she needed to do something.
But other restaurant owners we spoke to said they would not institute a mandate unless they were ordered to. Restaurants are about hospitality, and the idea of asking someone if they’re vaccinated and then refusing to serve them if they are not is anathema to many.
There’s also fear of retribution. During earlier COVID surges, restaurant staffers were screamed at, spit upon and threatened just for asking diners to wear masks when not eating. Hostile online reviews can drag a restaurant’s ratings down.
At the same time, restaurant owners care about diners’ safey and their staff’s safety. When we wrote about restaurants reopening, many chefs said the biggest hurdle they faced was hiring back staff. Some former employees had found work in other fields, but many others would like to return but haven’t, due to worries about whether they’re truly safe until the pandemic is firmly behind us. Restaurant workers, notoriously low-paid, did not sign up to expose themselves to the coronavirus.
If we want our restaurants to truly recover, and not return to shutdowns and takeout only, local governments need to institute vaccine mandates for restaurants. There’s evidence mandates work. Vaccination rates in New Orleans and surrounding parishes rose significantly in the two weeks after the mandate went into effect.
This is a public health decision. Choosing to get vaccinated may be a question of personal liberty, but once someone enters a community space where they can spread the virus, public safety comes first.
When we choose to sit down at a table with family and friends to eat, we should know the restaurant is trying to keep us safe. We don’t ask restaurant owners and chefs to decide whether kitchens need to be clean or whether spoiled meat can be served to diners with a zesty sauce to hide the taste. We have public health codes and they exist to protect people.
Are government mandates ideal? Of course not. But they’re needed now. It’s time to truly reopen America.
News editor Mitch Frank has been with Wine Spectator since 2005.