Last month, when Mayor Michelle Wu announced a plan to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for people to enter restaurants, gyms, or entertainment venues in Boston, it was hailed as a much-needed move to blunt the surge of Omicron.
Now, though, with the rules set to take effect Saturday, some retailers say the mandate is starting to feel like yet another COVID-related burden on the backs of businesses the pandemic has hurt the most.
Some are even scaling back their operations in response.
Paul Deuterio of Galleria Umberto in the North End decided to temporarily switch to a takeout-only operation until the mayor rescinds the rule. Customers inside a business for a short period, to pick up food, for example, do not need to show proof of vaccination. For his popular pizza place, enforcing such a rule just isn’t worth the hassle.
“It’s a nonstarter,” Deuterio said. “A family comes in and you have four or five people. If one of them isn’t vaccinated, what do you do, throw them out?”
In launching the requirement, Wu said it will help to stave off another wave of COVID, prompt more people to become vaccinated, and protect indoor gatherings. And she was joined that day at a City Hall news conference by business owners and leaders of cities and towns around Greater Boston who voiced their support.
But restaurateur Chris Coombs suspects that checking the vaccination status of his customers will not dramatically change the course of the pandemic in Boston.
“Somebody could show me their fully vaccinated and boosted card and still be positive for COVID,” said Coombs, who owns Boston Chops in the South End and Deuxave on Commonwealth Avenue. “I’m not really sure exactly what it achieves, other than making it more uncomfortable for those that aren’t vaccinated.”
To avoid lines of people standing outside his restaurants, Coombs is asking his staff to collect vaccine credentials as they call parties to confirm reservations. The restaurants will store that information in an internal database so repeat customers only need to go through the process once.
Still, he knows his staff is ill-equipped to authenticate whatever records a patron might present. Under the mandate, business owners are not required to ask for additional forms of identification.
“It’s kind of just mission impossible,” Coombs said. “A noble thought.”
The rules will go into effect in stages, starting on Saturday with people over age 12 having to show proof of at least one dose, and culminating with the requirement that everyone over age 5 show full vaccination by May 1. A spokesperson for Wu’s office said businesses that fail to enforce the rule will initially receive verbal warnings, and then fines of up to $300 for each subsequent violation. Businesses that repeatedly and purposely flout the rules could lose their license to operate.
Massachusetts recently rolled out a digital certificate patrons can use to show proof of vaccination, and Boston will launch a smartphone app called “B Together” on Saturday, which allows people to readily access a photograph of their CDC card.
Business owners in Boston expect to see an immediate impact this weekend, noting that even if most Bostonians are vaccinated, many still are not, reducing their pool of potential customers.
“As Mayor Wu casually states, 70 percent of the city has had full vaccination,” Coombs said. “I think about the 30 percent that’s being removed from the total addressable market.”
The policy doesn’t leave much room for religious, medical, or personal belief-related exemptions, either. If someone isn’t vaccinated, Wu suggests engaging in “cooperative dialogue to find an alternative means of service, such as providing takeout rather than dine-in service.”
“Maybe that solves the issue with a restaurant, but how are you solving the issue for a concert venue, or a pool where someone wants to work out?” said Jeffrey Gilbreth, a partner in the labor and employment practice at law firm Nixon Peabody’s Boston office.
And with so many businesses struggling, no one really wants to turn away customers.
“If people didn’t have masks, businesses could pull one out and say, ‘OK, you can come in’,” Gilbreth said. “They can’t fill the gap of someone’s vaccine status.”
And — at least at the moment — Boston stands largely alone in requiring vaccination to eat in a restaurant or hit the gym. While Salem and Brookline have passed similar mandates, and Somerville is poised to do so Friday, other communities continue to debate the benefits. Even neighboring Cambridge, whose mayor voiced her support for Wu’s plan in December, appears unlikely to adopt a similar mandate.
“We have prioritized education and outreach over punitive enforcement,” City Manager Louis DePasquale told the City Council on Monday. “As such, I am not committing Cambridge at this time to a vaccine mandate plan.”
This “patchwork quilt” of rules across cities and towns is the logical result of the state government declining to impose a mandate across Massachusetts, said Marc Draisen, the executive director at Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Draisen, whose agency often works on regional efforts like this, said he expects more communities will join in the coming weeks, noting that not every mayor has the same authority as Boston’s.
“Generally, people felt that [Wu] was moving in the right direction,” he said. “Obviously, there are some people who don’t agree with it.”
Still, some said such a mandate in the region’s biggest city could help move the needle on inoculation rates by attaching consequences to some people’s decisions not to get vaccinated, said Dean Eckles, an associate professor of marketing at MIT. He said it could be especially true for younger people “who face more social pressure to engage in activities that are covered by the mandate.”
It may also help unvaccinated people realize that the majority of Bostonians are vaccinated, he added, a piece of information that has been shown to increase vaccination.
It’s less clear whether the mandate will achieve its other stated goals of blunting the winter surge or protecting indoor gatherings. San Francisco and New York City, which have had similar mandates in place for months, have seen cases spike in recent weeks. Officials there did not respond to questions about their proof-of-vaccination policies.
In Manhattan, Liam McGreevy, manager of Legends Sports Bar, said most customers comply with the rule by flashing a QR code or CDC card to an employee standing at the front door. Employees don’t scan the digital codes to verify them or spend more than a few seconds viewing the paper card to make sure it’s authentic.
”We’re a busy sports bar, so there’s an honor system involved,” McGreevy said.
The Boston rollout, meanwhile, may initially have hiccups, said Draisen, the regional planning director, but he believes the city should still move forward quickly.
“Sometimes if you just implement it, which is pretty much what Mayor Wu is doing, it goes fine,” Draisen said. “If you ask business, ‘Do you want to do this?’ you’ll always have a small minority, but a very vocal minority, that says ‘No, the sky is going to fall.’ ”
Bessie King, general manager of Villa Mexico restaurant in the Financial District, said she’s all for the proof-of-vaccination mandate if it helps businesses stay open. Many, she notes, have already used up their savings and federal relief funds.
“If people expect us to keep working, we need to do it in a safe manner,” said King, who is also a founding board member of Massachusetts Restaurants United, which represents independent establishments. “If people don’t cooperate, small businesses are going to close left and right.”
Still, she acknowledged that the vaccination mandate isn’t foolproof, that small mom-and-pop restaurants such as hers probably cannot afford to hire someone to check vaccine cards at the door. Nor, King notes, will it bring office workers back to the empty towers all around her.
“At this point, it’s not even just about the vaccines, it’s about people wanting to go out,” King said. “And we don’t know how to convince them, because they’re comfortable and safe at home.”