On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced some major updates to the city's COVID-19 mandates due to the confluence of holiday party season, the cold weather, and the emergence of the omicron variant. All private-sector employees, who were previously not required by the city to get vaccinated, will now be required to get at least one dose of the vaccine. And as of December 27th, anyone over the age of 12 who wants to go to a restaurant, gym or entertainment venue will have to show they've received at least two doses of the vaccines. In addition, children between the ages of 5-11 will have to show proof of vaccination to participate in those indoor activities as well beginning December 14th.
This move, which de Blasio called a "preemptive strike" against a potential winter surge, has seemingly caught everyone in the restaurant industry (and other sectors) by surprise, including those who normally would be involved with helping to roll out such policies.
"This was not discussed prior to implementation, and there's some significant concerns," said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a group that has often worked with or advised the de Blasio administration on restaurant industry issues throughout the pandemic.
"Within the industry, there's a lot of restaurateurs that supported the general vaccine requirement, and a lot that really opposed it," he told Gothamist. "But the way that this new expansion has been rolled out clearly wasn't thought through. The U.S. just opened up to international tourists, the city has been urging people from around the globe to come to New York City during the holidays. And we have so many kids coming in from around the globe that aren't even eligible to be vaccinated in their countries."
He says that the new mandate poses a lot of very basic operational and financial challenges during what is already a challenging time of year for restaurants trying to get customers to eat indoors. "At a minimum, the proof of vaccination for children to dine indoors and go to other entertainment venues should be postponed," he added.
Tyler Hollinger, owner of "farm-to-bar" venture Festival Cafe NYC, told Gothamist his issue was not with the vaccinations, but with the mayor making "arbitrary decisions" without consulting business owners or the Hospitality Alliance.
"I'm 100% pro-vaccine, I have been from the start," Hollinger said. "All of our staff is double vaccinated. I'm triple vaccinated. The issue we're talking about here is about people's personal right to choose. And for the government to mandate this is absolutely ridiculous. And then on top of that, to have the hospitality industry be the enforcement agency without compensation is ridiculous. Why should I be the bully kicking children out of my restaurant when it's Mayor Bill de Blasio's problem? It's absolutely insane."
He said he felt the handling of this issue was indicative of mismanagement by the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations throughout the pandemic, highlighting a couple prime areas of frustration throughout the industry: "Let's not forget that not a single person was harmed by propane heaters, right? And they took the propane heaters away. Let's not forget that not a single person was harmed by cocktails-to-go. And they took cocktails-to-go away."
Hollinger also fears restaurants getting stuck in an ouroboros of vaccine compliance checks: "It's clear that we're headed down this path where full immunity does not exist with the vaccine," he said. "So every six months you're going to need to get a booster. Am I supposed to now require people with only three shots, four shots, five shots, six shots? It's absolutely ludicrous that the mayor has made the hospitality industry to be this enforcement for his own agendas."
Pallava Goenka, one of the managing partners at Osteria La Baia, isn't as bothered by having to check vaccination status, regardless of how many shots it is. "It does not make a huge difference to me personally, in the sense that as it is, we're already checking," he told Gothamist. "So now we've got to check a little bit more diligently to make sure it's two." He also sees the upside in the private-sector mandate, which he hopes will encourage more offices to bring workers back safely, and thus drive more foot traffic to Midtown in the long term.
He does think the city could do a better job of communicating these things though ("When you're mandating a private sector, I get their bigger picture, but think there should be some dialogue with the private sector before this mandate comes"), a complaint shared by many in the business community, including Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York. She believes this will cause “more stress, more tension” around the ongoing efforts to have employees resume in-person work.
In the short term, Goenka is also concerned about the complications of checking children's vaccination status, and people forgoing trips to NYC from places where their kids can't get vaccinated. "It was poor timing in my opinion," he said. "This is the best time of the year to come to New York and for people who have been longing to come to New York [with] their family, there's so much excitement going on. And we are already managing the parents or the adults accompanying the kids coming to the restaurant. So to mandate kids, with proper guidelines, how are you checking their vaccinations? They honestly don't always have ID cards."
On that front, the city has announced that the NYC COVID Safe App will be updated later this week to allow parents to store their children's vax cards. (There's no word yet on whether the Excelsior Pass will get a similar update.) During his announcement, de Blasio added that more information about how restaurants and other businesses are expected to implement and enforce the new mandate won't come until December 15th, after discussions with leaders in the business community.
Epidemiologists, including CUNY professor Dr. Denis Nash, have applauded the measure, telling Gothamist this week that the city should go even further in efforts to protect against the new variants, including limiting mass gatherings.
Chef Franklin Becker, a former private chef who started veggie-friendly minichain The Little Beet and runs F. Becker Hospitality—which includes Butterfunk Biscuit Co., Portuguese BBQ place Galinha, Universal Taco, and Israeli hummisya spot Shai—told Gothamist frustrations have been mounting for restaurateurs, and even people who believe we should err on the side of caution are nearing a breaking point.
"What I think is gonna end up happening is, I don't want to use the word revolution, but there's gonna be some adverse reactions to this and it's gonna result in clashes that I hope don't become violent," he said. All the restaurateurs Gothamist spoke to said there had been incidents at their places involving customers who were denied entry because they weren't vaccinated, though many downplayed the severity.
Becker said he's worried about the financial impact the continued mandates will have, especially during the winter slowdown: "I personally give guaranteed wages to people in order to keep staff, and I continue to burn through money just in an effort to provide food service," he said. "At what point does that type of behavior on my part have to pass through to the customer? At what point do I have to make up for it by charging more money? They're putting us in a very complex position."
He added, "I'm not saying there shouldn't be measures to safe guard the populace, there should be. But it should be much more well thought out. It seems like everything is very kneejerk and that's the frustration that everyone has. Everything is kneejerk."
Last summer, a group of Staten Island restaurants and other businesses sued the city over the vaccine mandate when it was first announced. That litigation was dismissed, and it's expected that other businesses who try to sue the city over this latest mandate will face a similar outcome. Steve Bell, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, noted that "the harsh realities of the seemingly more contagious omicron variant create an atmosphere in which aggressive measures may be required to halt the spread of the virus."
The question then is whether the incoming mayor will uphold these final mandates made by the de Blasio administration. While the children's vaccine mandate will begin in a week, the rest of the vaccine mandates don't go into effect until just a few days before de Blasio's term ends. Evan Thies, a spokesman for Mayor-elect Eric Adams, said in a statement that Adams "will evaluate this mandate and other COVID strategies when he is in office and make determinations based on science, efficacy and the advice of health professionals.”