Used to be, you needed an ID to get served at a restaurant. Now you might need to show a vaccine card, too.
As the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads, a small but growing number of Boston-area restaurateurs have resorted to devising their own measures to make indoor dining safer. In an industry now inured to taking calculated risks, this is perhaps the greatest one, as hospitality professionals attempt, in the absence of state or city mandates, to act independently in the interest of public health despite potential backlash from guests.
This is in sharp contrast to New York City, where officials announced that patrons will need to show proof of vaccination if they want to eat indoors. But on the same day that New York City authorities announced those rules, Boston’s Acting Mayor Kim Janey said she doesn’t support such a measure here. So some local restaurants are taking matters into their own hands.
At The Quiet Few in East Boston, owner Josh Weinstein is done taking chances. Guests must show proof of vaccination before stepping inside, and unvaccinated guests can eat on the patio. He said he made the decision after the restaurant had to shutter recently because of a COVID case.
“Our recent closing was a high inside fastball. We were brushed back. But we need to heed the warning,” said Weinstein, who posted a long explanation about the decision on his restaurant’s Instagram page. “Personally, I am a type 1 diabetic with an almost 18-month-old at home. We are both compromised without [The Quiet Few] taking action.”
Tracy Chang implemented a similar policy at her Central Square restaurant, Pagu. To dine indoors, customers must show proof of full vaccination, get their temperature checked at the door, and have a mask. Customers who won’t or can’t vaccinate, plus kids who are too young for shots, must eat outside.
Many customers are grateful for the policy, but others have lashed out. One guest resisted showing his vaccine card, relented, but then threatened the general manager by saying that he worked at the district attorney’s office. Others have retaliated with negative online reviews. Another critic called her a Communist.
“This is not political. This is about everyone’s public health and safety. The last thing we want is someone to end up in the hospital or even with the sniffles,” she said.
At City Winery, a restaurant and performance venue with locations throughout the country, including Boston, owner Michael Dorf has gone a step further. Without proof of vaccination, guests can show results of a PCR COVID test taken within three days or a rapid antigen test taken within one day. They can also take a rapid test at the door.
“There’s nothing here about politics. We’re simply creating a safe environment for our customers, our staff, and very importantly, working musicians,” he said.
Others say that this kind of enforcement puts a burden on hospitality workers who are already burned out.
“I would require customers and staff to wear masks before I ask for proof of vaccination — not only do we not have the staff to police the customers, we do not have the desire to go down that road,” said Formaggio Kitchen owner Valerie Gurdal.
Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, who owns Alcove in the West End, fears for staff safety and sanity. Currently, he does not require guests to wear masks, but said he re-evaluates this policy daily.
“There’s so much I worry about: the fear of COVID for our staff and guests; the mental strain of policing that our staff has been required to handle; the fear of physical confrontation with a guest,” he said. “If the government isn’t going to give us clear guidance, then my ideal would be that all restaurants come together to create a common standard.”
He praised New York City’s efforts.
“Seeing what Mayor de Blasio of New York did is huge. It made the restaurants handle it collectively. It creates an expected standard for guests. Here in Massachusetts, we have a lack of clear direction, which is a problem,” he said.
Bob Luz, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said that the government shouldn’t make restaurant workers enforce safety rules.
“Everyone who is eligible should get a vaccine, end of story. The government cannot and should not put enforcement responsibilities on understaffed and overstressed restaurant employees. We know firsthand what employees have had to overcome when enforcing mandates on guests, and it isn’t pretty,” he said, calling such an arrangement “untenable.”
Dorf, however, said that enforcement is just part of the job during a pandemic.
“The choice is going to be very simple. Do [restaurants] close completely and have all the bandwidth in the world really soon?” he said. “This is part of the safety protocol that’s required today. It just is.”
Chang said that she wishes bigger-name chefs throughout the area would require vaccine proof but that some restaurateurs might worry about alienating guests and risking profits.
“I see people pushing for reform in restaurant revitalization funds, but why aren’t they pushing for proof of full vax? I think they don’t want to. People will say it’s difficult to train staff or will create a bottleneck at the door,” she said. “I think those are excuses. It’s not difficult to train people. I think it’s the right thing to do, but a lot of people choose the bottom line.”
For restaurateur Chris Coombs of Boston Chops and Deuxave, the issue is more complicated than that. He calls vaccine-checking a “slippery slope” and said he has no plans to implement new policies unless he receives further guidance from state or city officials.
“As a business, if someone were to forget their proof of vaccination, and it was a long-term regular whom I spent 10 years cultivating, do I take them at their word? Or turn them away, leaving the table empty for the evening?” he asks. “It puts an enormous amount of pressure on our staff. We have been the mask police for well over a year of operations.”
In the meantime, other restaurateurs are muddling through as wary guests — and staffers — try to assess risk. Near South Station, Troquet on South owner Chris Campbell is biding his time to see how Delta progresses and said he’s hopeful after watching the recent Provincetown outbreak become contained.
“I think it’s just a matter of the next two to three weeks to see how people react and how they treat this new variant,” he said.
Last week, he toyed with offering 15 percent off to guests who showed up for their indoor reservations. His dining room is at 50 percent capacity. This is partially because he’s short on staff, but there is a silver lining, since it allows guests to spread out.
“The 50 percent capacity makes people feel a little more comfortable, I think,” he said.
Guests and staffers can also wear masks if they feel comfortable, but Campbell doesn’t insist on it.
“It’s kind of a fine line. Does it scare the customer? Does it make them feel more comfortable when they see the masks again? You’ve got to be careful with that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chang has no regrets about her strict vaccination and mask policies. She’s seen enough.
“I know other restaurant owners who have had to ship bodies back to Colombia. I have friends who battled really aggressive cancer during COVID and were not able to get the treatment that they needed. As a result, I’ve attended funerals during COVID. I think those experiences have really shaped my decisions,” she said.