We're not out of the weeds just yet. Even as the availability of vaccines has allowed many restaurants to reopen fully, we are still far away from a world where restaurants can operate in a “post-COVID” mentality without some degree of restrictions
Just over half of all Americans are fully vaccinated (51.4%), The more contagious Delta variant has spread rapidly over the summer and makes up more than 80% of all COVID-19 cases, according to the latest data from the Center for Disease Control.
In response to these changes, the CDC now recommends that fully vaccinated individuals wear a mask indoors in areas of high transmission. More than 80% of U.S. counties are considered high transmission areas, and the change is palpable.
So far, the cities of New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans have implemented policies that require proof of at least one dose of vaccination for most indoor activities, dining chief among them. It's expected that other cities in the United States and Canada will follow suit. Some restaurants have taken matters into their own hands and instituted vaccine requirements, notably in Seattle, the state of Hawaii, and Toronto.
The Difficult Questions, Answered
But is this legal?
“[Restaurants] can refuse service to anyone as long as it's not for pretext or a discriminatory reason,” says Matthew Duffy, partner at Monroe Moxness Berg, a Minnesota law firm that has worked with restaurants for decades. He asserts that this may not prevent backlash from guests who disagree, but believes that clear policies and rigid enforcement can help to manage it.
"It's enforcement. It's consistency. It's just sticking to what your policy is. I think we will eliminate a lot of the pushback that you could get from an angry customer or somebody who's not buying what you're selling with your policy," says Duffy.
Some states, including Alabama, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota, have made it illegal for private businesses to require vaccination proof. Texas and Iowa have similar laws, but only for businesses that receive government grants or funding (such as PPP loans). In the other 44 states, however, it is legal.
Can I still get sued?
“You can be sued for any reason,” says Duffy. But he's hopeful that as vaccines become FDA approved (the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was granted FDA approval on Aug 23, 2021), the risk of lawsuits will be lower.
How to Implement a Vaccination Policy In Your Restaurant and Empower Staff to Enforce it
Communicate clearly to guests what the policies are
Whether you're in a region where the government has set vaccination policies, or you are deciding your own as a business owner, communication is a key to successful implementation. Whether it's masking, vaccination for indoor dining, or any other policy, clearly communicate it to guests.
Avoid surprises at the door and inform diners in as many places as you can. Physically display it on all of the entrances to your restaurant. Add a banner to your website. And share it on your social media profiles (although you may want to turn comments off for those posts—this guide can show you how).
Both Yelp and OpenTable can now display vaccination policies on their online listings for guests to see. Yelp has even taken steps to help reduce “review bombing” from customers who direct their anger into online reviews.
Eileen Gregg-Garcia, the owner of Buona Terra and Hearth and Crust in Chicago, is taking a slower approach. “I sent an email to all our guests that said, “please be aware that it may become a requirement to show your vaccine card when you arrive.”
“I can't start checking lot numbers on vaccine cards. But getting guests used to the idea that I'm gonna ask for it, it's like a pop quiz. You're gonna make sure you're ready,” says Gregg-Garcia.
Give your employees proper training
The reality is, your team is going to be the ones who are enforcing whatever your requirements are. Just as you wouldn't ask bartenders to ask for ID without training them on how to ask and spot a fake, you can't ask your team to verify vaccinations or tests without training them properly.
In a statement, Larry Lynch, senior vice president of Science and Industry for the National Restaurant Association, said: “Now, without training, our staff members are expected to check the vaccine status of every customer wanting to eat inside the establishment. Last year when mask mandates across the country were put in place, restaurant workers suffered terrifying backlash when enforcing those rules.”
Once you have a consistent policy in place, distribute it to your entire team—even those who may not be greeting guests. It's important for the entire team to be aligned, so there are no questions or lapses in the way rules are enforced. To keep it even more consistent, come up with a script for how you ask guests for vaccination or negative test proof, and how to respond if they don't comply.
“...the worst thing I think people can get into is if they're lackadaisical, they have this policy, but in some instances, they're lackadaisical about enforcement...it does give the appearance of this sort of fluidity that you don't want to [have], you want to have a policy and you stay with your policy,” says Duffy.
If your restaurant is requiring proof of vaccination, help your staff get acquainted with the forms it may take. In addition to paper CDC cards or photos of them, there are a number of digital vaccine cards that have popped up. These include New York's Excelsior Pass, the digital vaccine card from CLEAR, and CommonPass. It may be wise to provide this list to guests so they have a few ways of showing proof.
Here are a few ways to make sure everyone on your team is aligned:
- Hold an all-team meeting to go over the policy and give your team the opportunity to ask questions.
- Distribute the policy to your team with restaurant communication tools like 7shifts, so it's always available
- Hold mock scenarios as a means to practice enforcement and varying situations
Understand how to deal with escalated situations
The politics surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines have many people taking staunch opposition to vaccine passports. This means there's a good chance you may encounter an upset guest.
“Our advice is always to listen to their concern and try to be as kind of as possible. But if it's your policy to not allow people in the restaurant that haven't been vaccinated or have a recent negative COVID test, then there's really no middle ground there. So you're going to have to deescalate the situation and hopefully, the customer goes away and finds another place to go eat,” says Duffy.
Eileen Gregg-Garcia hopes it can go beyond politics and be more about safety for everyone involved.
“As restaurant owners, we should take a stand that we are putting our lives in danger for your enjoyment. We really, really need you to be as committed as we are if we can enjoy the fun,” says Gregg-Garcia.
Looking Ahead: Restaurant Vaccination Policies
As with the initial shutdown to where we are now, managing restaurants through the pandemic is ever-shifting. Through times like these, consistent communication is of the utmost importance—for staff and guests. Restaurateurs like Eileen Gregg-Garcia are calling on local lawmakers to back them up and help make it easier to enforce vaccination requirements. But she's also hopeful that Coronavirus-related public safety requirements will eventually become like indoor smoking bans and seatbelt laws—commonplace.
Free Food Safety and Career Development Training | ServSafe
Free, Downloadable Vaccine and Face Mask Signage | Zenefits
COVID 19: Posters and Flyers | NYC.gov
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