Beginning this week, New Yorkers will be required to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, gyms, and other indoor facilities as the city’s vaccine mandate begins in earnest. The policy, which has loosely been in effect since August 16 but will be enforced by city inspectors starting September 13, is a step forward in the ongoing fight to curb the delta variant, officials say.
But for businesses operating in neighborhoods with lower rates of vaccination, the mandate raises a complicated question: What does it mean to serve your community, when half of it can’t eat inside your restaurant?
Citywide, more than 5.5 million New Yorkers, roughly 67 percent of the city’s population, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the latest city data. Yet that number varies by borough — from some 78 percent in Manhattan to 60 percent in Brooklyn and the Bronx — and even more so by neighborhood. In parts of Chelsea, some 90 percent of residents are partially vaccinated. In Borough Park and Hunts Point, two of the city’s lowest vaccinated neighborhoods by percentage, that number drops to 45 and 53 percent, respectively.
Adam Keita, a co-owner of daytime coffee shop Daughter, has been confronting that disparity over the last month from eastern Crown Heights, where roughly 49 percent of residents are partially vaccinated at the time of publishing. He’s been requiring customers who dine inside his coffee shop to show proof of vaccination since mid-August, when the mandate went into effect without enforcement. Having to ask his customers if they had been vaccinated “changed everything,” he says.
“Business was super slow at first,” Keita says. “Mostly it was customers coming in and asking questions. They weren’t sure what they were actually allowed to do.”
Ahead of the mandate this week, his staff debated how to engage with customers about the vaccination requirement. Instead of asking whether someone is vaccinated upon entry, he says he plans to frame the question around whether someone wants their order to stay or to go, given that proof of vaccination is not required for takeout under current city guidelines. “We try to make it a non-judgmental zone,” he says. “It’s about finding ways to still serve the community.”
Others fear they’re turning their back on customers, some of which are unvaccinated and still weighing whether to take the vaccine — even in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, where some 94 percent of residents have been partially vaccinated. Amy Hernandez, co-owner of the year-old Mariscos El Submarino, says she’s been waiting until the last minute to begin checking the vaccination status of her customers. “We were waiting and hoping that it wouldn’t end up happening,” she says.
Hernandez opened the restaurant specializing in ceviches and aguachiles with her husband Alonso Guzman last June. Business was slow to start, but the couple has started to hit their stride in their second year, she says. Now Hernandez worries the vaccine mandate could mean losing customers. “To know that we’re just picking up right now, and we’re not sure what’s going to happen… We’re worrying,” she says.
The city’s vaccine mandate kicked off last month, but enforcement of the program begins this week. Beginning September 13, inspectors from various city agencies — including the Parks Department, Department of Transportation, Fire Department, Sheriff’s Office, and nine others — will be making the rounds at restaurants and other indoor venues, checking that staff are asking customers for proof of vaccination and ensuring that businesses have signage explaining the vaccine mandate on display.
Restaurants that violate the mandate after September 13 may be subject to fines of at least $1,000 for a first offense, at least $2,000 for a second offense, and at least $5,000 for a third offense. At a press conference on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the focus of the program early on will be on safety, not fining restaurant operators. “We want restaurants and all the other businesses to succeed,” de Blasio said. “No one is starting this out with the intention of fining… We just want people to be safe.”
Despite the measured approach to enforcement, a vocal minority of restaurants has emerged in opposition to the program, with some owners vowing to disregard the policy even after September 13. In Bay Ridge, where an estimated 70 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Abdul Elenani, co-owner of bustling Palestinian restaurant Ayat, says he plans to display a sign about the mandate but won’t be asking his customers for proof of vaccination. Simply because he doesn’t have time.
“It’s adding labor during this insecure time,” Elenani says. “I would have to hire someone to check vaccines at the door.” Paying the city’s fines would be cheaper than bringing on an additional employee at the restaurant, he says.
Other restaurant and bar owners have turned to social media to oppose the mandate, organizing public demonstrations and fundraising campaigns to assist with city fines. “We do not discriminate against any customer based on sex, gender, race, creed, age, vaccinated or unvaccinated all customers who wish to patronize are welcome in our establishment,” one post circulating on social media reads. In another, owners liken the vaccine mandate to “segregation.”
“It’s not the word I would personally use,” Keita says, citing concerns about equating the city’s vaccine mandate to the country’s history of racial segregation. Still, he understands the frustration of being tasked with enforcing coronavirus guidelines on behalf of city and state governments once again. “It feels like an unfair job,” he says. “The government has turned all of these small businesses into police officers.”
Hernandez echoed those concerns from Jackson Heights. “We will be asking for [proof of vaccination], but it’s not something we want to do,” she says. “There are people who are still figuring out how to feel about the vaccine,” including many of her customers.
All of the restaurateurs interviewed for this article have been vaccinated, and multiple owners say the mandate has been working as intended, prompting some customers to ask staff about their experiences receiving the vaccine and even get vaccinated themselves. In Bensonhurst, Patrick Lin, co-owner of Em Vietnamese Kitchen and Em Vietnamese Bistro in Dumbo, says the mandate motivated at least two of the restaurant’s regulars to get vaccinated.
“We had a few people that were a little bit pissed off,” Lin says, “and then the next time they came in, they showed up with proof of their first dose. It’s pushing people who want to dine out to get the vaccine so they can start to enjoy life again.”