How some restaurants are reacting to CDC guidance: Masks indoors, proof of vaccination

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(NEW YORK) — Bars and restaurants are once again at the forefront of a polarizing business decision 16 months into the pandemic: Whether or not they should require patrons to wear masks inside or show vaccination status in order to dine safely.

Parts of the country are bracing for change after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended Wednesday that vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates due to the increasing spread of the delta variant. The agency did not publish new research but cited, “CDC COVID-19 Response Team, unpublished data, 2021.”

From coast to coast the restaurant industry has been hard-pressed to follow ever-changing health protocols throughout the pandemic to keep both staff and customers safe, but even with 49.5% of the country fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Restaurateur Danny Meyer, CEO and founder of Union Square Hospitality, announced Thursday that his restaurants in Washington, D.C., and New York City will require patrons dining and drinking inside to show they have been fully vaccinated starting Sept. 7. Guests can bring the physical COVID-19 vaccine card, a New York State Excelsior Pass, relevant state-provided vaccine pass, or a photo of their vaccination card to share upon arrival.

Although it’s also part of his group, the Shake Shack founder said the policy does not yet extend to the popular burger chain.

“As everything opened up, there was a lot of reason for cautious optimism, but the increase of the delta variant infection rates is causing alarm for many,” Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, told ABC News. “Some restaurants have or will implement vaccination policies for workers and in some cases customers, but that poses challenges.”

Proof of a vaccine or facial coverings are ultimately up to the business owners who are looking out for the best interests of workers and the communities they serve.

For specific restaurants such as ones in a community with lower vaccination rates, Rigie said “different restaurants are situated differently and have different abilities. If most of your customer base is vaccinated and you have resources to check vaccination status, it’s not easy, but it’s easier than being a small business in a community with hesitancy or lower vaccine rates.”

He added, “Collectively I think we understand we need to do everything possible not to revert to new mandates and restrictions after the restaurant industry has been economically devastated so far.”

For first-time restaurant owner Patricia Howard, who opened an intimate seafood restaurant Dame to rave reviews in June, she said she has “anxiously watched the infection rate creep back up” and wants to remain vigilant for both diners and staff.

“We can’t control whether the person next to us on the subway is wearing a mask, but we can control who gets to come through our doors at Dame,” she told ABC News. “With two members of our staff immunocompromised and the very small size of our space, it is better to air on the side of caution. We were nervous about potential backlash, but once the city announced all municipal workers are required to be vaccinated, we felt more confident that it’s the right thing to do regardless of the response.”

The small team at Dame emailed diners who had upcoming reservations earlier this week about requiring proof of vaccination and Howard said they “only had to cancel a few reservations, due to one or more guests being unvaccinated thus far.” She added that nearly all guests have been appreciative and supportive with hundreds of unexpected replies “thanking us for keeping our community safe, saying it makes them even more excited to dine at Dame, and hoping other restaurants follow suit.”

In California, even before the latest CDC guidance, some bars in Los Angeles County, as well as the Bay Area, have taken preventative steps, asking for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test 72 hours before dining.

Starting Thursday, bars that are part of The San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance may ask customers who wish to be inside to show proof of vaccination. While not mandated by the government, Ben Bleiman, president of the local industry group and owner of Soda Popinski’s and Teeth bars, said this is a step they needed to take “to protect our staff and families.”

Other industry leaders like Oregon-based Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, stressed that this new wave of rules and recommendations could become “confusing and burdensome” for both restaurants and diners.

“It’s really challenging to walk into one place and not see a mask mandate and then just a block or two away the mask rules are different,” Polmar explained. “The requirements vary county to county and the public doesn’t know where a county line is.”

Polmar emphasized that if diner attendance dips again, government financial assistance will be crucial and she is imploring Congress to quickly allocate money again for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

“I think if you were to talk to any restaurant owner across the country they would be even more heartbroken that they’re not seeing the replenishment of the RRF” despite support in the House and Senate, she said. “The urgency isn’t being acted upon.”

She continued, “Restaurants are accepting the hard truth that Congress might not act until September and that’s amplifying the devastation they’re feeling.”

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