On August 16, New York will become the first city in the U.S. to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining. The announcement, which came on Aug. 3, followed a spike in coronavirus cases and concerns over the contagious Delta variant.
Unsurprisingly, New York restaurants have been ahead of the curve, with a small but growing list of venues already requiring proof of vaccination before the city-wide mandate is enforced. Here, we speak to some of those New York operators about their experiences so far.
Resy: You’ve implemented proof of vaccination COVID-19 safety policies at restaurants before the city’s vaccine mandate announcement. What have been some of your greatest challenges throughout this process?
Matt Kebbekus, COO at Happy Cooking Hospitality (Jolene, Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, Fairfax): We’re over a year and a half in, still dealing with Covid, and everyone’s exhausted. We’re layering all of this additional stuff on what’s already a challenging job that requires a huge premium on personal interaction. Anything you layer on top of that just sucks.
Samantha Safer, owner at Otway: The additional staffing needed and managing the expectations of our guests. Every night, our general manager Sophia has to contact every indoor dining guest to confirm that they will be able to supply their vaccination card or the Excelsior pass. This takes hours! Then she spends most of the night confirming reservations, vaccination status, and fielding phone calls from guests from outside New York who may not have the documents needed. Her job looks less and less like a typical restaurant general manager.
Ektoras Binikos, co-owner at Sugar Monk: There has definitely been backlash and we are losing business. Last Sunday, we had to turn away over 25 people. We have a big sign at our entrance that requests proof of vaccination to enter, but people still try to come in and argue their case, saying they forgot their card or they didn’t have a chance to get vaccinated yet, but still, they want to have a cocktail. It was challenging to have to argue our decision as we love our patrons and have worked hard throughout the pandemic to balance safety and customer service.
Michael Dorf, CEO of City Winery: Our entire industry lost people who don’t want to work right now because it’s too fragile, too hard, and too uncertain. Now, everyone’s overworked because we can’t get enough workers, and the frustration is: We can’t close again.
Kebbekus: If you go to a bar, there’s somebody whose job it is to check IDs. And we’re asking a similar thing in this situation: Everyone who crosses the threshold needs to produce this proof, and that, just operationally, that’s a lot of work, particularly for restaurants that are strapped for staff. The staff that we do have already has a lot to do. We don’t have the leeway to just hire more people for the sole purpose of checking IDs.
Safer: Honestly, the state and city government have been behind on making crucial calls every step of the way. We have repeatedly put restrictions and plans in place that the city and state then implement days later.
Binikos: I wish the city had implemented this mandate immediately, so as to avoid putting the blame on us and challenge our relationship with our patrons. Leadership often seems harsh but is necessary during such times as ours. Being back to somewhat normal times is the ultimate goal.
What has resonated the most with customers?
Dorf: We keep emphasizing over and over: this is about safety. It’s not about politics, it’s not about philosophy or religion or us being zealous and wannabe thought leaders, or any other crap. We’re doing this to keep our staff safe and our customers safe.
Safer: Our transparency and communication. We don’t sugar coat what we are doing and what we expect of our guests. Our staff is fully vaccinated and prepared to answer any questions the guests might have.
Binikos: We witnessed much support from the patrons who have come in, as well as many “hoorays” posted to our social media. Guests have told us that they feel much happier to be indoors, especially at the bar, as they feel much safer knowing that everyone is vaccinated.
Kebbekus: The overwhelming amount of feedback is positive. People appreciate being asked, they’re like “Thank you, no I’m glad you’re asking,” or “I really appreciate that you’re doing this,” and they’ll just reach for proof of vaccination. Most people fall into that camp. They’re like, “Thank you for hosting a safe environment, it makes me feel good.”
Anything else you’d like to share with the general public?
Kebbekus: We’re trying to make a policy that governs the working lives of just over 100 people and the interactions of thousands of guests a week who dine at our restaurants. It’s inevitable that people are going to fall on either side of whatever we decide. Luckily, our restaurants are able to offer a place to sit for everyone, and that is literally the first point in our policy: We accommodate everybody. And that’s because we have outdoor dining. Not everyone is so lucky.
Safer: Not knowing the vaccination status of the guests from March to July felt very uneasy and was a knot in the stomachs of our entire staff. It’s tough to have to make these calls, but as a business owner, I’m responsible for the safety of 18 employees and our community.
Binikos: The financial aspect is naturally difficult to withstand after having barely survived two shutdowns. Still, we feel it is the right thing to do in order not to go back to yet another shutdown that would potentially create more damage in the long run. We immediately felt a sense of relief as we felt that we finally had some control over the protection of our staff and guests. We hope that decision will help in our own small way to motivate people to get vaccinated.
Dorf: The only way our society shuts down again is because of those people [the unvaccinated]. I’m getting hate mail — you just gotta ignore it and go, “We’re on the right side of history.” We want to stay alive, we gotta keep our operations going, and even if it’s at a smaller capacity, that’s better than nothing. We’re sticking to it, it’s the right thing to do, and I hope other people follow it.
If you’re a restaurant operator, be sure to check out the Resy OS blog, where operators discuss their business tips and tricks to navigating the new normal.