As COVID cases rise, restaurants once again scramble to impose rules

By Christina Morales

As the delta variant of the coronavirus has become the most predominant variant in the United States and medical experts issue confusing advice, restaurateurs find themselves once again making difficult decisions on health mandates. Many, where laws allow it, have taken that to a new level this week, requiring their patrons to bring proof of vaccination before dining.

“For us, it’s really just a preventive measure to make our employees and our diners feel safer,” said Patricia Howard, the owner of Dame, a seafood restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York City. Her restaurant’s new vaccination policy, which applies to diners outdoors as well as indoors, was announced to customers Wednesday on social media.

“This seems like one way we could take control, fight back a little bit and protect our space in a very attainable way,” said Howard, who is immunocompromised. She said that all the employees on her small team had been vaccinated.

Many restaurant owners said that as infection rates have risen recently, they began to consider setting their own safety rules. But the announcement last Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated people should resume wearing masks indoors added new urgency, prompting some owners to make drastic decisions to respond to a much more contagious variant.

“This is not our first rodeo,” said Benjamin Sukle, the chef and owner of Oberlin in Providence, Rhode Island, who on Thursday began requiring his patrons to show proof of vaccination and wear masks. “This is not the first time we’ve seen cases go up, and they don’t just stop.”

In states including California and New York, some restaurant owners are mandating vaccines for customers and employees, and reinstating older health protocols like requiring that both groups wear masks. But in states like Florida and Arkansas, which have had huge spikes in coronavirus cases, laws are more stringent. Businesses are not allowed to ask customers for proof of vaccines, and local governments cannot issue mask mandates.

In New York state, where about 57% of residents are fully vaccinated, many restaurants quickly adopted policies requiring proof of vaccination.

Danny Meyer, the chief executive of Union Square Hospitality Group, which manages more than a dozen restaurants in New York and Washington, D.C., announced Thursday that beginning Sept. 7, all employees must be fully vaccinated. Customers will also be required to show proof that they’re fully vaccinated, either through the CDC’s vaccine card or through digital vaccine passports. Masks will not be required unless there are government mandates, he added.

“I just do not want to see our business or our city turn back to where we were last summer,” he said. “We have an answer, and this is what the answer is, and it’s vaccines.” (Meyer is also the founder and chairman of the board of the nationwide hamburger chain Shake Shack, but said he could not decide for that company.)

“New York City fully supports this move,” Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York tweeted in response. “More businesses should mandate vaccines for the safety of workers and the safety of our city.”

Jacob Siwak, the head chef and owner of Forsythia, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, said some customers, concerned about rising COVID caseloads, had asked to sit in his outdoor dining area rather than inside over the past week. He said he began to start thinking more seriously about instituting a vaccine policy about 10 days ago, because his partner is a physician and has helped him make decisions on health policies.

“I had been wanting to make this change for a little bit, and I didn’t know the right way to put this into practice,” said Siwak, who began to ask diners for proof of vaccination Wednesday night as a means of protecting his fully vaccinated staff. “It’s the right thing to do. It was kind of a no-brainer.”

But not all restaurants have received the same support. Since announcing that customers of her San Francisco restaurant, Vegan Picnic, would have to present proof of vaccination to eat inside Monday, Jill Ritchie said she had initially received hundreds of threatening messages a day, and dozens of one-star reviews from skeptics.

Yelp posted a consumer warning for the restaurant about unusual review activity. People continue to leave negative Google reviews based on her announcement. “Come here to be discriminated against,” said one message.

“My feelings are hurt, but I’m resolved to do whatever I can to do my part to protect people,” Ritchie said. “I’m open to hearing that people disagree, but to call us names, put us down, call us Nazis, all these terrible things, and then try to harm our business online is just disheartening.”

After a number of coronavirus cases among vaccinated staff members, Ben Bleiman, the owner of the San Francisco bars Teeth and Soda Popinski’s, said it was time for him to issue guidance to about 300 bars in the trade group he heads, the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance. The group has urged its members to ask customers for proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test.

Bleiman said he had to shut down one of his bars for 10 days after his bartender became sick and there was no one to fill in.

“We’re not trying to get to zero,” Bleiman said of the policy, though he knows there is no way to be certain a customer has been immunized. “If there’s some really scumbaggy people that will go so far as to fake a vaccine card, that’s between them and their maker.”

In Cocoa, Florida, east of Orlando, Emma Kirkpatrick said she has closed her restaurant, Ossorio Bakery & Cafe, until at least Saturday after a vaccinated employee tested positive for COVID. While she is not able to require patrons to show proof of vaccination because of a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, she said she would require employees to resume wearing masks, and would encourage customers to wear them, too, though that will be a trickier proposition.

“I’m not ready to fight with customers again,” she said. “Reinstituting a mask policy for customers at this point would be a much bigger fight than a few months ago when people were used to it.”

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