NYC Restaurant Industry Embraces Vaccine Mandates Despite Risks

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It was after an employee turned in a second vaccine card, with different dates and a different vaccine brand, that George Constantinou realized he had found a fake. Well, that and the employee’s confession.

“[The first card] was just a bad photocopy job,” Constantinou, a Brooklyn restaurant owner, told Commercial Observer. “Then, when we asked him to bring it in for us to inspect it, he commented that he didn’t have it anymore — [that] he lost it. So, he brought in a new card and it had totally different dates, I think it was even a different vaccine … We couldn’t have him on the team [after that].”

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Constantinou, whose portfolio includes Bogota Latin Bistro, Miti Miti Modern Mexican and Medusa Greek Tavern, all in Park Slope, is one of the many restaurant owners across New York dealing with the city’s new vaccine requirements. Employees must be vaccinated to work in indoor spaces like restaurants, concert halls and gyms. And patrons of those venues must be vaccinated to come inside.

The requirements follow perhaps the roughest patch in living memory for the New York City restaurant industry. Restaurants, bars and nightlife venues were devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that followed, like limiting capacity on indoor dining and eateries’ hours of operation in order to curb a pandemic responsible for more than half a million deaths. 

Excluding one violent instance at a location of Carmine’s Italian Restaurant, the restaurant industry has seen a relatively smooth start to the enforcement of the vaccine requirements, which began Aug. 17 but hadn’t been enforced by the city until last week, starting on Sept. 13.

The city hadn’t, as of Wednesday, levied any fines on eateries either — though in the first week of the program, city inspectors did issue 4,096 warnings at the 11,636 eateries they inspected from Sept. 13 through Thursday, according to city spokesman Mitch Schwartz. 

But what has turned heads — and camera phones — was the violent altercation at the Upper West Side Carmine’s. A group of out-of-state restaurant-goers attacked the eatery’s hostess on Sept. 16, allegedly because she had asked to see proof of vaccination from them. The three tourists dispute that claim, however, saying the hostess used a racial slur before lunging at the three women. (Carmine’s disputes this claim.)

While it’s unclear what happened at Carmine’s that day, the fear of customers getting upset, or even physical, with wait staff is something New York restaurant owners and workers dread.

“Our staff are really being put in a difficult position and I don’t know that they are protected or safe in that,” Sarina Prabasi, co-founder of Buunni Coffee, which has three locations in Manhattan, told CO. “It’s really hard for our staff, because I think everybody recognizes that service work and working in food and beverage is some of the more difficult work in general, and then you have to basically be on the frontline of public health policy.”

Prabasi said she’s had patrons yell at her staff, putting workers in the uncomfortable position of telling a customer that they’re not always right. While the vast majority of her coffee shop clientele have been supportive of the vaccine requirement, even going as far as to thank staff for enforcing the rules, Prabasi said what sticks most in her mind are the bad experiences. 

She also felt that while restaurants and other indoor establishments had a month to start implementing the policy before it was enforced, the ever-changing guidance from the city and state still weighed on her mind, especially when it came to mask-wearing.

“Our mask policy goes beyond the city’s that we require masks, regardless of your vaccination status. We had to do that because we’re trying to keep everybody safe,” Prabasi said. “I think, overall, it’s been very mixed messaging … I understand why there was such a focus on vaccination and creating a key to New York City. But what about masks?”

Prabasi and Constantinou both said they’ve had trouble with unvaccinated employees. Constantinou had to fire three of his 100 employees who did not get their first shot by the enforcement date of Sept. 13. Prabasi, too, had to let people go. So did Ed Raven, the owner of Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. and watering hole Brouwerij Lane, both in Greenpoint.

“Everybody on staff now is fully vaccinated,” Raven told CO. “We only had one incident with a cook. He felt that this was being forced on him … [He resigned in an email, saying] that his body was a sanctuary and that he could do whatever he wants with it.”

While it was somewhat difficult to replace the cook, Raven said his brewery was finally getting back to its normal, or normal-for-a-pandemic, groove. He hopes that more New Yorkers will get vaccinated so his businesses can return to pre-COVID procedures.

“I just wish everybody was getting vaccinated so we can go back to a semi-normal business plan,” Raven said. “It’s just ridiculous that we have to do all of this stuff because there are people out there who don’t want to get vaccinated. The irony is that during the pandemic, everyone was screaming for vaccination, and now that we have it, people don’t want it. It’s just crazy.”

Raven and his staff check the vaccine cards and IDs of patrons, and then give each a wristband to keep track of who has been checked, he said. He hadn’t yet been visited by a city inspector, though Constantinou and Prabasi both told CO that inspectors had stopped by their establishments. 

City inspectors are charged with ensuring that each restaurant has signage, provided by the city, that informs customers about the new policy and that restaurant staff are asking for vaccine cards, said Schwartz. The inspectors come from a collection of 13 different city agencies, including the New York City Department of Health, of which an employee visited Constantinou. 

Businesses can incur a maximum of $5,000 per noncompliance penalty. The first violation of the policy carries a warning, a $1,000 fine for the second, a $2,000 fine for the third and the fourth, and any following violations carry a $5,000 fine, Schwartz told CO.

And Andrew Rigie, head of the New York City Hospitality Alliance trade group, wants the city to focus on education and training before issuing fines as a last resort. 

“We’ve been on the frontlines of all the different, ever-changing regulations with so much stress and economic catastrophe,” Rigie told CO. “It puts an enormous burden on the industry, but we’re working hard and working together to get through this, because we know we need to keep our customers [and] our employees healthy and safe.”

While Rigie says some smaller restaurants have offered more limited indoor seating, he hadn’t heard of the requirements forcing industrywide changes, like restaurants not reopening or widespread harassment of restaurant staff. 

Rigie said his organization was working with the city to encourage restaurant workers and patrons to get vaccinated through pop-up vaccination locations, and that the hospitality alliance has hosted online training sessions to educate restaurant owners about the requirements. 

He thought the requirement had certainly helped the city see high vaccination rates — nearly 80 percent of Manhattan residents had, as of Thursday, received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 70 percent of New York City residents had, according to city data.

“Restaurants are the anchors of communities,” Rigie said. “They’re community gathering spaces … and people respect them. So it’s a good way to get the message out and further support the communities that they serve.” 

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.