New York City Restaurants Are Back on the Vaccine Culture War’s Front Lines

Jennifer Vitagliano has been in perpetual pivot mode for over a year now. Since the start of the pandemic, the owner of the Michelin-starred Musket Room in Manhattan’s SoHo has hatched a delivery menu and a brunch menu to lure new customers and borrowed a 1962 van from a friend to sell doughnuts and cocktails in front of her eight-year-old restaurant, which is known for its inventive spin on new American dishes. Of all the flexes she’s made, playing bouncer has been the most exhausting.

In early June, after several Covid-19 cases hit the industry, Vitagliano and her business partners decided that Musket Room customers who wanted to dine indoors needed to be vaccinated. When a group of five guests arrived for dinner one evening, two covertly passed a phone between them, trying to prove that they were vaccinated by using the same Excelsior Pass, an electronic vaccination record created by New York state. Vitagliano, doubling as the vaccine card checker, caught the pair and stopped them from entering.

“It’s the largest cultural clash we’ve ever faced,” says Vitagliano of trying to enforce Covid-19 protections. “We didn’t get into business to be bouncers, but here we are.”

Vitagliano’s experience is a preview of what the thousands of New York City dining, fitness, and entertainment establishments will experience in mid-September, when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new policy requiring vaccinations to enter these indoor venues kicks in. “If you want to participate in our society fully, you’ve got to get vaccinated,” de Blasio said at a press conference on August 3. “It’s time.”

Vaccination rates have stalled in recent weeks, even amid an uptick in cases and hospitalizations. Nationwide, 57.9% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. New York City is just above the national average, with 59.5% vaccinated. The new mandate, which will begin on Sept. 13, requires that all employees and patrons in these establishments have at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Under the system, patrons will have to show a vaccine card, the new NYC Covid Safe app (where users can upload their identification, vaccine card, and recent Covid-19 test results), or the state’s Excelsior Pass app. But forging fake cards, considered a felony, or using the legitimate cards of others will inevitably be an issue. The NYC Covid Safe app doesn’t actually check the validity of the vaccination card or cross reference it with outside databases, such as state records. There are also public concerns around handing more personal information over to the government.

Assessing vaccination status is the latest headache restaurant owners face. The industry was already dealing with the stresses of getting indoor dining back up and running, along with a labor shortage. The number of workers is down an estimated 1.3 million, 10% below what it was before the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs find themselves in the crosshairs of a culture war. Salil Mehta, chef and owner of the Singaporean restaurant Laut, says the mayor’s announcement “freaks him out.” Although he’s pro-vaccine, he says this dynamic will be especially hard on Asian restaurants, where racism is already a problem. Mehta says that when he spoke with his local police precinct about the new mandate, officers told him they won’t be monitoring restaurants but he has a right to kick out customers who won’t leave. “Then you’re in close contact with someone who isn’t vaccinated, and it shouldn’t be our job,” says Mehta, who can’t afford to hire security. “I don’t want to be the guy policing these things.”

New York City Restaurants Are Back on the Vaccine Culture War’s Front Lines

Others are preparing their staff to disarm potentially heated situations. At Dhamaka, a new Indian restaurant on the Lower East Side, front-of-house lead Tina Dolker is anticipating cancelations when the rule goes into effect, along with contentious interactions. “We are going to have special training on how to say ‘no,’” she says. Danny Meyer, the chief executive officer of Union Square Hospitality Group LLC, says staff at his restaurants will receive guidance on how to deal with aggressive guests. “We have been working on de-escalation techniques for months,” Meyer says.

Bars and restaurants that can afford to do so will outsource security to guards. While that industry has boomed during the pandemic, it’s also become more dangerous, with mask disputes leading to violent attacks and at least two shooting deaths.

Centurion Security Solutions, a New York-based security company primarily hired by bars and nightclubs, has already been working with venues to check vaccination records. Centurion owner Idris Washington thinks most New Yorkers will comply with the new law, but worries about how the policy will fly with visitors from out of state. “Being in New York City, you’re dealing with a ton of tourists,” he says. “I think that’s going to be the issue.”

There are some restaurateurs taking the latest curveball in stride. They point out that outdoor dining is still available to unvaccinated guests, and they note that checking for vaccination status isn’t all that different from checking IDs for alcohol. “We’ve dealt with intoxicated people, irrational people.” says Scott Gerber, whose popular New York spots include Mr. Purple and the Campbell. “Our people are skilled at de-escalating problems.”

Read More: Schrager’s Public Hotel Is NYC’s First to Mandate Vaccines

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