Bars, restaurants move to impose vaccine mandates

A growing number of bars and restaurants have imposed vaccine mandates, a new trend after President BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE directed all federal employees to show that they are vaccinated or submit to regular testing for COVID-19.

Private sector companies across industries have followed suit after Biden’s directive, but restaurants, from major chains to small local businesses, have been notably quick to call for proof of vaccination for diners.

The restaurant industry was devastated by the COVID-19 closures and lockdowns. The new surge in COVID-19 cases as a result is seen as a real threat to an industry that is starting to make a comeback.

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It risks new lockdowns, social distancing restrictions that ensure fewer diners, and puts employees at risk. As a result, some say it’s hardly a surprise that a number of places are moving quickly to embrace vaccine mandates.

“It makes perfect sense to require vaccination to come inside because you’re putting your staff at risk again, and there’s just that issue of trying to avoid another lockdown at all costs and trying to make sure that your customers feel safe coming inside and are not risking infection,” said Annelies Goger, a Rubenstein fellow at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

The Union Square Hospitality Group became one of the first restaurant groups to require all staff and dine-in customers be vaccinated. The group operates New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Manhatta, and Union Square Café, as well as Anchovy Social in Washington, D.C.

Biden, in laying out the administration’s next efforts to get more Americans vaccinated last week, said he wants to see private companies, as well as local governments and schools, move toward vaccine mandates. 

New York Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Hochul gets early boost as NY gubernatorial race takes shape Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Boosters take a big step forward MORE issued the first blanket requirement for a city, mandating that people show proof of vaccination to dine at a restaurant, work out at a gym or go to a movie.

Following his announcement, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel BowserMuriel BowserBowser declares October 2021 'LGBTQ History Month' in DC DC Council member plans to challenge Bowser for mayor Lobbying world MORE said she would look into if requiring that people show proof of vaccination for restaurants is necessary in Washington. Restaurants like 1301 Kitchen & Bar in Georgetown, 2Amys in Cathedral Commons, Ivy and Coney in Shaw, Nellie’s Sports Bar on U Street and Hill Prince on H Street are among those that have already said proof of vaccination will be required to enter.

One major reason restaurants are taking this step is to bring back workers, argued Alex Susskind, associate dean for academic affairs at the Cornell University School for Hotel Administration.

“Full-service operators, operators of bars, they want to get back to business and one challenge that they’re facing is labor. They need to have a labor pool they can rely on, they need to be able to expand their labor pool and the way long-term they can do that is to make their employees feel safe,” he said.

Restaurants, many of which laid off or furloughed workers during lockdowns, are feeling a labor crunch and are struggling to hire. There were 12.5 million restaurant industry employees at the end of 2020, which was down 3.1 million from expected levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Since then, eating and drinking establishments added a net 1.3 million jobs and added a net 253,200 jobs in July alone.

Along with making workers comfortable, requiring vaccines to dine-in is also a way to get customers to feel safe. 

The business review platform Yelp announced this week it is adding COVID-19 guidelines to its business listings, which will allow people to filter companies based on whether they require proof of vaccination and whether staff are fully vaccinated.

“The emergence of a tool like that signifies that there’s a market. There’s consumers who want to be as safe as they can be, it’s a marketing tool,” Goger said.

The National Restaurant Association, though, has mixed feelings about vaccine requirements considering the difficult position it puts restaurants in.

“Restaurants continue to place the health and safety of guests and workers as their top priority. While we support vaccination for everyone as the most effective way to contain the spread of COVID-19, vaccination verification efforts place restaurants, who lack training in this area, in a very difficult position,” said Sean Kennedy, the association’s executive vice president for public affairs

“This, coupled with the fluctuating variety of state and local mandates, makes it all the harder for restaurants to keep doors open and serve their communities,” Kennedy added.  

The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) has its attention turned to Congress and has called for more funding for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which was in Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The group argues that this program is the best way to help restaurants and bars recover and “navigate the uncertain months ahead.”

“Restaurants and bars reeling from the pandemic just took a turn for the worst. On top of 17 months of debt and skyrocketing food prices, the delta variant stokes fear in consumers who are increasingly afraid to eat indoors, and threatens the return of revenue-decimating government restrictions. These businesses cannot lose any more revenue,” said Erika Polmar, IRC executive director.  

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The White House has been adamant about not returning to lockdowns, which is a very welcome position for the administration to take from the restaurant industry’s standpoint.

“I think that maybe a few months ago people were very resistant to the idea of requiring these vaccines but now that the data is showing how effective they are, the restaurant industry is saying we're going with the data… and that beats the hell out of closing my doors,” Susskind said.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden injects new momentum into filibuster fight White House: Biden drove by border on 2008 campaign trip Red Cross says Afghan humanitarian crisis too big for aid groups to handle alone MORE said this week that the country is in a different place than when lockdowns went into effect last year, pointing to data that 70 percent of Americans had received their first shot.

“That's progress. That ensures that a lot of communities are going to have a great deal of protection, and we're in a different place than we were when there was the period of lockdown, so it's a reflection of that,” she said.

After federal workers were required to attest that they have received the vaccine, other private companies including Tysons Foods and United Airlines have said they would impose some type of vaccine mandate for employees.

Goger argued that restaurants taking the same approach is the best solution to a tricky situation for businesses working to bounce back following a devastating year.

“It’s the best solution in a different situation where we’re getting rising risks of infections. It’s the least-worse option,” she said.