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No shot, no service: Restaurants debate vaccine requirements for diners

A restaurant employee moves between tables outside of a restaurant in Manhattan on December 11, 2020 in New York City.{ } New York became the first U.S. city to require proof of vaccination for restaurants, gyms and indoor entertainment venues. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A restaurant employee moves between tables outside of a restaurant in Manhattan on December 11, 2020 in New York City. New York became the first U.S. city to require proof of vaccination for restaurants, gyms and indoor entertainment venues. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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While most people hoped the summer would bring a respite from COVID-19, the rise of the delta variant and the struggle to get millions of eligible Americans vaccinated has changed that outlook.

For those working in the restaurant industry, the setbacks have been dramatic. It has led many to consider adopting a "no shot, no service" policy to reassure customers while providing an added layer of protection for staff and guests.

"This variant has sort of pulled us right back to March of 2020," said Caroline Styne, co-founder of The Lucques Group in Los Angeles. "I feel like I'm getting whiplash from the back and forth of this thing."

After seeing sales return to near pre-pandemic levels in late spring, restaurants are again being plunged into uncertainty. Restaurant reservations peaked in June and started trending below 2019 numbers by mid-July, according to Open Table. Over the weekend, reservations had dropped 14% compared to 2019.

Over the last two weeks, Styne said she lost 15-20% in revenue. Those losses were driven primarily by fewer indoor diners who had renewed concerns about the virus.

"People are getting fearful again because of the contagious nature of the delta variant," she explained. "A month ago felt so optimistic felt like we were getting somewhere and there was a future of normalcy and this delta variant has thrown a wrench into everything."

A new Axios-Ipsos poll shows that Americans are taking greater precautions than they were in late spring. The number of Americans spending time out of the home has declined for the first time since early this spring and more people are taking protective measures.

In an effort to protect public health, governments and businesses across the country have started requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. The federal government and states including New York and California are requiring employees to get vaccinated, as are Google, Facebook, The Walt Disney Co., many hospitals and over 600 universities.

On Tuesday, New York became the first U.S. city to require proof of vaccination for customers at restaurants, gyms and indoor entertainment venues.

"If you want to participate in our society fully, you’ve got to get vaccinated," New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said. Currently, 66% of New York adults are fully vaccinated.

Other cities will likely follow New York's lead. For now, political leaders are letting the private sector determine whether to require proof of vaccination at the door, leaving owners to make the difficult, controversial business decision.

The San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, representing nearly 300 establishments, announced its members would require patrons to provide proof of vaccination. In Washington, D.C., over a dozen establishments are asking patrons to show a vaccine card or other proof before being seated.

"It's really unfathomable that we restauranteurs are constantly having to sacrifice and also make the decision on the part of the community when really people in higher positions should be doing that," said Styne.

After seeing dozens of Los Angeles restaurants require proof of vaccination, she is figuring out whether she will do the same. She recognizes it could impact her business and hopes political leaders provide guidance to take the burden off owners.

Some people have applauded businesses for requiring vaccinations and are gravitating toward them. But the requirements have also sparked anger from others.

A group of protesters allegedly harassed diners during a demonstration against vaccine mandates outside a West Hollywood restaurant.

A restaurant owner in Atlanta was attacked online by Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene after instituting a "No vax, no service" policy. Greene, who was recently banned from Twitter temporarily for spreading COVID-19 misinformation, called out the restaurant by name, claiming the policy was "segregation."

Armando Celentano, the owner of the Argosy bar and restaurant, said he wanted to improve safety after he and several vaccinated staff tested positive for COVID-19. "I feel I have the right to offer that regardless of any Washington politician using their own version of cancel culture to intimidate us and possibly shut us down," he told CNN.

Ricky Gomez is currently considering whether to require patrons to show proof of vaccination at his Cuban bar and restaurant Palomar, in Portland, Ore., and he is on the fence. Palomar has ample outdoor seating and he worries about how another mandate will impact his employees.

"It's been a mentally exhausting year and a half of maintaining COVID protocols," he said. "As a whole, my staff are leaning towards not requiring them, because, at the end of the day, they're exhausted with being the COVID police."

There are also concerns that stricter requirements could drive away customers at a time when restaurants need the business. That's why many businesses are looking to governments to impose mandates

"Of course, we don't want to alienate ourselves from individuals who have the right to choose what they want," Gomez noted. "But obviously, the spread of the virus is something that's very important." He anticipated Portland leaders could reach a decision on vaccine requirements in the coming week or so.

New cases of COVID-19 dipped slightly Monday, after rising exponentially over the month of July to over 84,000 daily cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68% of all eligible Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and 58% are fully vaccinated.

While the vaccination rate among Americans has increased in the last two weeks, new studies released by the CDC raised the troubling prospect that fully vaccinated people are contributing to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.

Each of the vaccines available in the United States has proven effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death from all known COVID-19 variants. However, in rare cases of breakthrough infections, vaccinated people might be able to transmit the delta variant to others as easily as the unvaccinated. CDC research suggested the virus is as transmissible as chickenpox, with an infected person possibly transmitting it to five to nine others.

Many business owners are waiting for the next shoe to drop, anticipating new COVID restrictions and a longer recovery period than they thought.

"The uncertainty, whether it's a mask mandate, a vaccine mandate or a complete shutdown, is absolutely terrifying," said Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, an organization created to support restaurants during the pandemic.

Thousands of establishments weathered 16 months of losses and were just starting to see revenue come in to meet monthly costs. "The idea of going back and losing everything that they've just rebuilt, it's keeping people up at night," Polmar said.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition is currently pushing Congress to reauthorize the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a relief program that provided $28 billion in grants to struggling food and beverage establishments. Several restaurant operators who received a grant said it was the only thing providing a degree of certainty as the delta variant started to impact revenues.

"That grant is basically giving us the long-term financial stability to weather a slowdown in business, even another shutdown," said Gomez, noting it also allowed him to keep his employees on payroll and cover their health insurance.

Many in the business world see the slow rollout of vaccinations and the emergence of virus variants as the greatest threat to the economic recovery.

The U.S. economy expanded at a rate of 6.5% last quarter and there was an uptick in consumer spending as COVID restrictions fell away.

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Fears around the delta variant and rising prices appear to have negatively affected consumer confidence and expectations by mid-July, according to the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index.

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