CityWatch: With potential fines on the menu, restaurants grapple with New York City’s vaccination mandates

As New York City continued to grapple with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic early in August, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a first-in-the-nation mandate requiring indoor dining patrons and restaurant employees to show proof of at least one vaccine dose

The requirement also applies to gyms and various indoor entertainment venues. Over the past month, other cities such as New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles have followed suit with similar mandates. The mandate’s official start date was Aug. 16, with enforcement by city health officials scheduled to begin Monday, the day when public schools are scheduled to reopen. City officials have advised restaurant owners to have multiple employees ready to check proof of vaccination, with a system in place to control crowding at entrances.

The NYC Hospitality Alliance, which has around 4,000 members, immediately embraced the new vaccine requirement but cited multiple caveats.

“Mandating vaccine requirements…is a very difficult step, but ultimately may prove an essential move to protecting public health and ensuring that [New York] does not revert to restrictions and shut down orders that would again absolutely devastate small businesses that have not yet recovered from the pandemic,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director, in a statement. 

“We know that a mandated vaccine requirement will pose economic and operational challenges to restaurants, particularly in communities with lower vaccination rates and hesitancy. However, it will also alleviate the burden that restaurants and bars face when implementing this policy voluntarily,” he said. 

Among those quick to raise serious concerns was the National Restaurant Association. 

“Checking vaccination status isn’t like I.D.-ing a customer before serving them a drink,” said Larry Lynch, the association’s senior vice president of science and industry, in a statement. “Last year, when mask mandates across the country were put in place, restaurant workers suffered terrifying backlash when enforcing those rules.”

Once enforcement begins, businesses are subject to a fine of $1,000 for a first violation, $2,000 for a second and $5,000 for subsequent rule-breaking.

“We want restaurants to succeed. No one is starting this out with the intention of fining [anyone]…we just want people to be safe,” said de Blasio in a news conference Thursday. “I think the vast, vast majority of businesses will be doing things the right way.” 

Reaction to the mandate among restaurant owners has been mixed, especially from those who have seen their business plummet over the past 18 months due to the pandemic. At least two lawsuits have been filed against the city over the mandate.

Stratis Morfogen, owner of the Brooklyn Chop House, an upscale restaurant in lower Manhattan, and the more casual Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, which has an outpost in the East Village, said restaurant workers are ill-equipped to police the vaccine mandate.

“We went down 90% in revenue like everyone else,” he said. “Now, with the mandate, the government hasn’t given us the proper tools…they think we can police something that is so mishandled. I can’t tell someone their vaccine card is invalid. My daughter could print out that vaccination card and write it out in pen and you could not tell the difference. I can’t police it without conflict.”

Stratis Morfogen owns the Brooklyn Chop House and Brooklyn Dumpling Shop.

Daniel Kwak

Morfogen, who argues anyone showing a negative test taken within 48 hours shouldn’t be subjected to the vaccine mandate, offered a potential scenario indicative of the mandate’s flaws.

“A customer says to me, ‘I just beat COVID three weeks ago…here’s my antibody test, which is positive, and COVID test, which is negative. My doctor told me I have no business taking the vaccine because I have natural antibodies.’ How can I tell the customer they can’t dine if they have a negative test?” Morfogen said. “I can’t tell them to get vaccinated. That’s above my payscale.” 

One restaurateur who got a head start on enforcing the mandate is Eric Ripert, chef and owner of the globally lauded Le Bernardin. 

More CityWatch: Meeting vaccine hesitancy, one calm answer at a time 

“We required proof of vaccination from diners starting in the beginning of August, before the mayor announced the mandate, and I haven’t received one complaint from our clients,” said Ripert, who saw only three of his 120 staff members leave his restaurant upon being informed vaccinations were mandatory for all employees. 

“We have no concerns about the mandate affecting business. All our clients are extremely happy we are doing this, to my knowledge. Nobody is bothered by showing proof of vaccination and an I.D., it’s very fast and seamless. We have two hostesses and the maître d’ who are checking in the guests and looking at the proof of vaccination,” Ripert added.

Though the restaurant’s business hasn’t caught up with pre-pandemic numbers, the dining room is at full capacity every night, with reservations scarce as always. (Lunch service is relaunching on Wednesday.)

“The reason I believe we’re full is because our clientele has been vaccinated and is comfortable being in an environment that feels safe,” Ripert said. “Requiring proof of vaccination makes my staff and I feel very comfortable. I feel safe in my restaurant — it’s the right thing to do.”

Another notable chef reporting zero resistance among his customers is Salil Mehta, owner of LAUT Singapura in Gramercy and LAUT Union Square, one of the first Malaysian restaurants in New York City to receive a Michelin star.

“Customers have been understanding of the rules and happily show us proof. The mandate is definitely a good idea, but we were not given enough information or tools to adhere,” Mehta said. “The industry is already suffering from a staff shortage and we don’t have the extra manpower to accommodate this, nor do I think it’s a restaurant’s job to mandate vaccinations.” 

Related: ‘Vaccine mandates actually further civil liberties,’ the ACLU writes in an op-ed

While noting how the mandate’s impact on his business will become more prevalent once enforcement by the city begins, Mehta has already made plans to offer certain concessions to unvaccinated guests. 

“We are getting our staff used to asking for the right information, and in situations when someone is not vaccinated we will be giving them an incentive, like a drink on the house, when they come back with proof of vaccination,” Mehta said. 

Bringing a global perspective to the city’s vaccine mandate is Kiyoshi Kawaguchi, executive officer of Create Restaurants NY, which owns the newly-opened Sarashina Horii on East 20th Street — the centuries-old soba restaurant’s first location outside of Japan — as well as a pair of Midtown eateries, Aburiya Kinnosuke and Soba Totto.

“I think it is reasonable to mandate vaccines for those working at or dining in restaurants. As a restaurant operator…we have an obligation to protect all diners as well as our staff,” Kawaguchi said. 

Also see: Number of children and teens with COVID-19 exceeds 250,000 for first time since start of pandemic, as mask and vaccination fights continue

He added that the restaurant has seen two to three customers per week who do not have proof of vaccination.

“We won’t seat them,” he said. “Although the city says it’s not our obligation to determine the validity [of the proof], we do have concerns that some diners may present fake proof of vaccination.”

Morfogen of Brooklyn Chop House is among a vocal contingent of restaurant owners who are frustrated at city officials. 

“The mandate’s adding confusion, destruction and pain to our industry. The politicians didn’t do their homework, and if they had, we’d have the tools to succeed,” Morfogen said. “At the height of COVID, 1.5% of people contracted the virus at restaurants and 74.5% at smaller private gatherings. We should be encouraging people to go to restaurants instead of home gatherings.”

Read next: Biden’s new pandemic approach to include vaccine mandates for federal workers, as U.S. averages 1,500 COVID deaths a day

Looking ahead, the majority of restaurant owners appear to be unified in terms of wanting more help and direction from the government.

Kawaguchi said he hopes Congress replenished the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which provided emergency aid for eateries impacted by COVID-19. “Unfortunately, we now have vaccine hesitancy and the delta variant. I hope that the government will work to ease the burden on restaurants,” he said.

This post was originally published on Market Watch

Financial News

Daily News on Investing, Personal Finance, Markets, and more!