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‘It made my job a lot easier.’ Boston businesses react to Wu’s proof-of-vaccine program

From relief to frustration, reaction varies among Boston businesses that will now have to require customers to prove their vaccination status upon entry.

Christopher Glionna, managing partner of The Aquitaine Group.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Over the past few weeks, as the COVID-19 case numbers have ratcheted back up, Christopher Glionna, the managing partner of The Aquitaine Group in Boston, has been trying to decide whether or not to require guests to show a vaccine card at the restaurants.

On Monday Mayor Michelle Wu decided for him. And that’s OK.

“It made my job a lot easier,” Glionna said.

Wu’s announcement Monday that indoor venues — including restaurants, gyms, and nightclubs and performance venues — must begin checking proof of vaccination starting Jan. 15, 2022 was met with a range of emotions from business owners. Including, for Glionna anyway, relief that it’s out of his hands.

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“Being out in front of something like this is always hard, but it was something that our employees wanted and it was something that our guests wanted, and now it is a level playing field across the city,” he said. “It’s not just our policy. It’s the policy of the city of Boston.”

The policy will take effect over the coming weeks, and be scaled up over time, giving businesses time to train their staff and the city time to create a smartphone app akin to the one used in New York City to help support the vaccine requirement rollout. By May 1, though, everyone over the age of four will need to be able to show proof they’ve received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to enter many businesses in the city.

Response to that idea was mixed.

Many businesses celebrated the move, saying a citywide policy sets clear rules for themselves and their patrons. Others saw it as yet more red tape after two years of ever-changing pandemic restrictions. Some were heartened that leaders of neighboring communities — such as Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Medford, and Salem — signaled support for the policy and may follow suit.

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Still, Jon Hurst, the head of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he didn’t oppose showing proof of vaccination, but worried it could be a burden on already-taxed retailers and restaurants.

“They increase costs and lower your sales,” he said. It could “prevent a lot of people from going into Boston.”

And if local leaders are going to mandate extra requirements on retailers, Hurst said, they should be willing to roll out more financial support, such as rent assistance or property tax relief.

“We’re now entering year three here, and as mandates have moved from the state and federal to the local level, these local officials have to look in the mirror and say ‘What are we going to do to let these small businesses have a tomorrow?’ ” Hurst said.

Johnny Loreti, the owner of Back Bay Fit, said he does not feel comfortable mandating a “pharmaceutical prerequisite” for people to work out at his private training center.

“I do know of clients who have openly shared they are not vaccinated for their own personal reasons,” he said. “I trust that they have their best health in the forefront of their minds and I honor their medical right to choose.”

And some restaurant owners worried about just another burden in what’s been a difficult time. Baheja Rostami, the owner of Ariana Restaurant in Brighton, said she might need to add an extra person to her Afghani restaurant’s seven-person staff to check vaccine cards at the door, and risk alienating customers in the process.

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“For walk-ins that we don’t know, I don’t think it is my place as a business owner to say, ‘Hey, we really recommend that you are vaccinated,’ ” she said. “People come in with their mask on, they sit down with their mask on, they order with their mask on… we just let them be.”

Still Nancy Caswell, executive director of Massachusetts Restaurants United, supports the plan, saying in a statement that “[i]f public health experts and our mayor believe that proof of vaccination is in the best interest of public health, we too stand behind that decision.... It’s without question that this will be difficult to execute while some of us experience labor shortages and burnout, but we can try to do it to the best of our ability and for the sake of the greater good.”

Some establishments have tried vaccine requirements of their own, with mixed results.

Big Night Entertainment Group, which runs several nightclubs and restaurants in Boston, said earlier this fall that it would require patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative test upon entry. Owner Ed Kane said Monday that he hopes Mayor Wu’s city-wide mandate will take the pressure off businesses that tried to implement such protocols on their own. He said Big Night’s mandate was almost “impossible to enforce.”

But Joe Spaulding, chief executive at the Boch Center, said his rules for the 3,500-seat Wang theater and the 1,500-seat Shubert are already more stringent than the city’s new requirement. The Boch Center has required full vaccination of employees and of patrons since September. He said he wishes the city would move faster and require proof of full vaccination for everyone as of Jan. 15, instead of a staggered approach.

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“I think what the mayor’s doing is the correct thing,” Spaulding said. “[But] it should be Jan. 15 for kids to be ‘double vaccinated,’ as well for adults.” He plans to continue to ask all attendees over the age of four to be fully inoculated.

And although promoter Bill Blumenreich said he was disappointed to learn about the new rules, he understood them. He runs the 1,100-seat Wilbur theater, where he says all his employees are already vaccinated. He worries that concert-goers might be even more reluctant to go out, particularly older music fans, a demographic that has already proved to be cautious about seeing shows in recent weeks.

“Does it hurt business? Yeah, it does. People are afraid to come out sometimes,” Blumenreich said of the new Boston rules. “[But] I don’t disagree with it at all. You’ve got to be safe.”

He also tried to look on the bright side: Last winter, with indoor venues completely shuttered under previous COVID-19 restrictions, he had no revenue coming in whatsoever.

“As bad as it is, it’s much better than a year ago,” Blumenreich said. “A year ago at this time, I was out of business.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.