Josefa Velasquez and Farah Javed, THE CITY
Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday that restaurants and other indoor venues no longer have to check guests’ COVID vaccination status — prompting jubilation from much of the dining industry.
Yet some proprietors are deciding to keep a vaccine mandate in place, or thinking about it, while remaining unsure of how their customers will react no matter which course they choose.
Before Adams declared last weekend that he expects to lift the Key to NYC vaccine passport mandate, Jeremy Wladis was leaning toward continuing to check customers’ status at his Upper West Side restaurants, which include Good Enough to Eat and Harvest Kitchen.
“I was to the point where I said, you know, I’m going to probably keep it alive for a while and see how people feel because my personal opinion and my professional opinion is, our civic duty was to go out and get vaccinated. And I still believe it’s the case,” said Wladis, the president of The Restaurant Group.
But the steady decline of new infections coupled with the drop in deaths from the virus, has Wladis rethinking his decision. On the Upper West Side, more than 85% of adults are fully vaccinated, and Wladis said patrons tout their vaccination cards “as a badge of honor.”
“From our standpoint we’re happy to do it,” he added. “I’m gonna talk to my team and ask anybody if they feel that there’s any negativity either way and ask them their thoughts.”
The Greenwich Village seafood restaurant Dame told Grub Street that it’s planning to keep a proof-of-vaccine mandate in place. Said a rep: “We don’t see any need to stop.”
Outdoor dining is expected to continue to be an option, with the City Council set to vote this month on a bill setting up a permanent program.
In the five boroughs, 96.5% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to nearly 88% nationally, and almost 87% are fully vaccinated higher than the 75% of adults in the U.S.
Dr. Jay Varma, the health advisor who helped guide former Mayor Bill de Blasio through the pandemic, and other public health experts have credited the vaccine mandate with helping nudge many New Yorkers to get vaccinated. In a Daily News op-ed published Thursday, Varma urged Adams not to drop the Key to NYC requirements for restaurants and other venues.
Yet precisely because vaccination rates are already so high, it’s doubtful that continuing the mandate is going to convince holdouts to get the shot, said Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, an associate research scientist at the NYU School of Global Public Health and a preparedness fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“It’s unlikely at this point in time that a mandate to participate in social activities in the city is going to change their mind if it hadn’t over the last year,” Piltch-Loeb said. “It would need to be a much more targeted identification of the remaining reasons and if there could be conversations or explanations that could shift their perceptions.”
Still, some COVID-wary New Yorkers remain anxious about returning to indoor dining and may be reassured by restaurants that choose to continue to check vaccine status going forward — just as Broadway theaters and some other venues are electing to do.
Keeping vaccination mandate for patrons could prove easier said than done, according to Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a restaurant industry trade association.
Bars and restaurants could open themselves to litigation, particularly over vaccinations, he said. The highly political climate around vaccine mandates only heightens concerns about backlash.
Some kind of official support from City Hall will likely be necessary to ensure restaurants and bars have a clearly defined ability to ask patrons to present proof of vaccination, said Rigie.
“I suspect there will be some restaurants who will voluntarily keep it in place, said Rigie, and “that the city allows them to do it and makes sure that for those restaurants they have the legal right.”
On Friday, Adams said he had consulted with the city lawyers and that they had determined owners can continue to check vaccination status if they wish.
A spokesperson for Adams, Fabien Levy, said that if City Hall issues guidance suspending the Key to NYC program, “we will issue guidance for how businesses can proceed as well.”
The vaccination requirement for diners has been “an extraordinarily challenging mandate to navigate” for restaurant owners and workers, said Rigie, who supports lifting the mandate after almost two years of constantly changing rules for restaurants.
But he acknowledged the mandate has been divisive.
“People are really torn on the proof for dining,” he said. “Some people are very happy and some people are really angry. It’s just another impossible situation.”
‘Tired of Being the Police’
Last August, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City would require proof of vaccination for indoor activities, becoming the first major U.S. city to do so.
Overnight, restaurant workers became bouncers, checking people’s vaccination cards and I.D.s to ensure they could dine or drink indoors, placing them in difficult situations at times against combative guests.
“Sometimes people do get upset,” said Charlotta Janssen, the owner of Chez Oskar, a French bistro in Bed-Stuy. “But we do have a lot of outdoor dining and luckily we have space there. We can always say ‘we can accommodate you with heated outdoor dining.’”
“We’re just tired of being the police,” Janssen added. “We’re just really, really burnt out, you know?”
Mahmood Alsubai, manager of Yemen Cafe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, saw a second location shutter for two months because of staff shortages and COVID cases among staff. He is eager to get business back on track.
“All of Bay Ridge is in favor of lifting both the mask and vaccine mandate,” he said.
Mark Caserta, the executive director of business recovery at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce told THE CITY that businesses he’s spoken to are reporting “the worst winter on record,” after the Omicron variant and widespread infections despite high vaccination rates kept customers at home.
“Restaurants were seeing very low numbers for people eating indoors. It’s been a very challenging winter so far,” said Caserta. He called lifting the vaccination mandate “welcome news” that could mean an increase in business for restaurants.
The mandate, which required anyone 5 and older to show proof of full vaccination, is also a challenge for tourists from countries where the vaccine wasn’t yet available to children, prompting some to rethink their trips and curbing a key driver of the city’s economy.
From a public health perspective, keeping a vaccination requirement would be ideal since other areas around the country and globe are still experiencing higher caseloads, Piltch-Loeb argued. But she recognizes other forces are now at work.
“Driving tourism back to the city, which the city thrives on and needs, is being balanced with our mask mandates and vaccination requirements kind of limiting that economic rebound for the city,” she said.
For restaurant workers In Bay Ridge, it comes down to small business survival.
“The mandate only works effectively on big corporations and it hurts the small business people. People can’t walk in because of restrictions,” said Alsubai. “Big tech still gets their paycheck working online but I make my money when people walk in.”
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