Cities Are Starting To Move On Proof Of Vaccination. Many Bars And Restaurants Aren’t Waiting
Restaurants, bars, gyms and other places where people gather are getting behind requiring proof of vaccination because they want employees and customers to stay healthy. And because they want their businesses to stay healthy.
Staying open is a critically important point for not only eating, drinking, fitness and entertainment establishments but also their landlords, many of whom were battered last year along with their tenants. Besides the risk to public health involved in allowing unvaccinated people to congregate in close quarters, restaurant and bar owners dread the possibility that spiking coronavirus rates will bring a return of pandemic-related closures or other costly restrictions on their business.
While some jurisdictions have banned proof of vaccination, New York City and now Philadelphia plan to require it, and other cities, such as Los Angeles, are considering that step. Many business operators aren't waiting for mandates, asking for proof from customers while hoping to avoid or overcome any backlash.
New York City is at the forefront of mandating that restaurants, bars and other public-facing businesses ask for proof of vaccination. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will begin requiring employees and patrons of indoor dining, gyms and performance spaces to show proof of vaccination beginning on Aug. 16, with enforcement starting on Sept. 13.
Patrons of indoor spaces must either use the city’s new app, the state of New York's Excelsior Pass app or their Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paper card to show proof of vaccination, according to the mayor, though he didn't detail the enforcement process — a sticking point for those establishments hesitant about the mandate.
"Before the announcement in New York, there were a few restaurants, but a growing number, that were requiring vaccines for employees and customers," NYC Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie said.
Broadway theaters also started requiring proof of vaccination in late July, just as venues reopened.
"Now the feeling is that the requirement will make it much easier for them to implement because they can point to the government requirement," Rigie said.
The issues of vaccinations and masks have the potential to be divisive among patrons, perhaps going so far as to impair a business' bottom line. Nearly one-third of diners would leave a restaurant if asked to present proof of vaccination, either in the form of a vaccine card or electronic passport, according to a Datassential survey published in July.
That is if they went out at all. As of late July, when news of the delta variant became well known, 35% of respondents to Dataessential's survey, conducted from July 16 to July 22 with 536 consumers, said they weren't going to eat out at all for now, up 10 percentage points from June 23. Another third (34%) said they would go out but are nervous about it, which is about the same as in June, and 31% said they have no concerns — down 10 percentage points since April 27.
"There's passionate and diverse opinion within the industry about this requirement," Rigie said. "But there is also agreement that whatever else happens, we can't resort to harsher restrictions like we saw earlier in the pandemic, with shutdowns and occupancy restrictions."
"We're in the business of health and safety, and this is a matter of health and safety," Tren’ness Woods-Black, co-owner of the storied Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem, told MSNBC. "Unfortunately, we don't have another option currently. We have to fight the war with what weapons we have, and the only weapon we have against this variant is the vaccination."
In cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago, there are no official mandates yet, but many restaurants and bars aren't waiting. They are beginning to require proof of shots for patrons and letting them know on their websites.
"We don't want our staff or customers to get sick," said 2Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria owner Peter Pastan, whose D.C. restaurant recently started asking for proof of vaccination, such as CDC cards. "It would be helpful if the city would get behind this and require proof of vaccination, but until that happens, we'll do the best we can."
Pastan also said he didn't want to return to the days of enforced closure or limited seating marked by the pandemic, and if asking for vaccination status would help prevent that, he was glad to do it. A coalition of Washington gym owners asked the city for a waiver from its recently reinstated mask mandate if the owners checked for vaccination status, but so far the city has declined to allow that.
In LA, the California Restaurant Association has thrown its weight behind a city council ordinance being drafted now that would require proof of at least one vaccination dose for entrance at bars, restaurants and other venues.
"If asking patrons for proof of vaccination in indoor public spaces can help us all avoid more shutdowns, massive layoffs, and operating limits, then we will do everything we reasonably can to assist the efforts of local public health officers, as we have done since the beginning of this pandemic," CRA President and CEO Jot Condie said in a statement.
There has also been pushback against such mandates, including protests and official action in a few states. In Texas, businesses requiring customers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 will be denied state contracts or could lose their licenses under a law passed in June.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order banning customer vaccine requirements, even if an individual restaurant or city wanted to create them, the Texas Restaurant Association said in a statement sent to Bisnow. Texas restaurants still have the ability to require masks and other safety protocols, though under the Texas law they can't be told to do so by local governments.
Florida passed a similar law banning vaccination passports, though a U.S. judge has ruled that cruise ships docking in that state can require passengers to show proof of vaccination.
There are also reports of private businesses speaking out against vaccination proof requirements. In Huntington Beach, California, Basilico's Pasta e Vino posted a sign asserting that only unvaccinated customers are welcome, according to The Washington Post, though the owner said he wasn't really checking vaccination status, just making a statement.
On Wednesday, the city of Philadelphia followed New York's lead, mandating either wearing a mask or proof of vaccination status for indoor businesses starting the next day, Mayor Jim Kenney and acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said at a virtual press conference.
"The honor system clearly hasn't worked," Bettigole said, referring to previous recommendations from health officials about getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.
The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association issued a statement after the announcement voicing a common objection to the requirements by saying the changes put "an unfair responsibility of enforcing these new requirements on operators and their employees."
"The PRLA supports the goal of a vaccinated and safe work environment for all," the organization stated. "However, mitigation efforts should not put business owners and operators in a position to choose between a fully vaccinated staff and customer base, or masks for all. This puts an unfair burden of verification on employees with no time to train or implement protocols."
That is a widespread sentiment in the restaurant and bar industry, said National Restaurant Association Vice President for State Affairs and Grassroots Advocacy Mike Whatley, specifically concerns about enforcement at the individual level, when restaurant employees ask for proof.
"We still haven't seen the regulations for New York, so we don't know exactly what the mandate entails," Whatley said.
Restaurants and bars have long checked IDs when alcohol consumption is involved, but vaccination is a new frontier.
"When checking someone's ID for alcohol service, there's training for that," he said. "Bartenders and servers are trained for how to check an ID to make sure it's not a fake. The ID is a government-issue credential that's standardized, but there isn't any such thing for vaccinations yet."
CDC cards are technically government-issued and uniform, but as pieces of paper, they aren't hard to forge. Cases of such forgeries are multiplying, The Wall Street Journal reports, and so are fake digital certificates in Europe, which are proving only slightly harder to forge. There is also the threat of conflict when asking for proof, Whatley said.
"If you look back to last year when mask mandates were imposed across the country, there were threats of physical violence towards front-line workers in restaurants, bartenders and other folks who were trying to enforce those mandates," he said.
The movement to require proof of vaccination is part of a much larger push to get the unvaccinated their shots, or else risk being left out of much normal activity. In Europe, France and Italy have started mandating proof of vaccination in the form of an EU digital health certificate for admission to restaurants, bars and other places.
In the United States, hundreds of colleges and universities are requiring Covid-19 shots for admission, hospitals are mandating them for their workers, and President Joe Biden announced that all civilian federal workers either must be vaccinated or face regular testing for the disease. The U.S. military is planning to vaccinate all personnel, and some private companies are beginning to mandate vaccinations as well, including real estate firms like Related Group and The Durst Organization.
But things aren't yet so clear in the restaurant, bar and entertainment venue business.
"Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is critical for the industry's recovery," Whatley said. "But under the new mandates, there are still a lot of unanswered questions for operators."