Even before Mayor Eric Adams announced his intentions to ease pandemic restrictions, there were rumblings in the restaurant community that one of New York City’s signature and controversial policies — asking indoor patrons for proof of vaccination — was on its way out.
To the surprise of some of his colleagues, Manhattan restaurateur Jeremy Wladis felt conflicted.
“I was one of those people that thought maybe I'm going to keep this going,” he recently recalled, “until everyone got a little more comfortable.”
Wladis, whose four dining establishments include Good Enough to Eat, had no qualms about complying with Key2NYC, a program that requires vaccination for all staff and indoor customers at restaurants, gyms, cultural institutions and entertainment venues. He is a firm believer in vaccination, calling it a “civic duty.”
“I think people want safety,” he said.
Come next Monday, the city plans to sunset Key2NYC and end masking in public schools as long as cases remain low. The city, however, plans to keep separate vaccine mandates in place for all private and public sector employees.
Like the decision to remove masks in city schools, the end of an indoor vaccine mandate in some of the busier social settings represents a significant milestone in the pandemic. Rolled out last summer by Mayor Bill de Blasio as one of the strictest mandates in the country, many have hailed Key2NYC for giving those in indoor settings a layer of protection from the coronavirus while incentivizing vaccinations.
But few have been more eagerly awaiting the rollback than those in the restaurant industry, which embodies the vitality of the city and was among the hardest hit by the virus. The New York City Hospitality Alliance, an advocacy group for the restaurant industry, estimates that thousands of restaurants across the five boroughs shuttered during the pandemic. However, even as some business owners say they are ecstatic, others remain guarded about what the future holds, raising a question about whether the timing is in fact right.
Public health criticism
Some public health experts have opposed the mayor’s decision, calling it premature in the face of a potential surge from omicron or the emergence of a new variant. Even though New York City is considered highly vaccinated — 77% of all residents age 5 and up have been fully immunized — nearly 2 million people have gone without all of their shots. Only 56% of the city’s children are fully vaccinated, and that rate drops to only 35% for youngsters ages 5-11. On the other end of the age spectrum, about two-thirds of New Yorkers older than 85 — an extremely vulnerable group — are fully vaccinated.
Dr. Jay Varma, de Blasio’s top health adviser, argued that short of keeping the mandate, the city should protect businesses from potential lawsuits should they elect to continue checking for proof of vaccination. He said the city could also incentivize the practice by having the health department hand out stickers to establishments that elect to stay with Key2NYC.
“So in that way, while the city is not requiring restaurants, it is in some ways, putting a stamp of approval saying that vaccine verification is both legal and something that the city allows you to advertise in front of your door,” Varma said.
Adams has called the relaxation of restrictions an important marker for the city’s recovery. “It's just a symbol that we are back,” he said, during a CNBC interview on Monday.
But Varma argued that many New Yorkers had either embraced or grown accustomed to Key2NYC.
“It may very well be that there are large swaths of New Yorkers that want this all removed,” he said. “I don't think that's the case, but it would be worth actually seeing good data to justify why removing it at this time is something that actually represents the will of the people as opposed to a decision to improve the overall psychology of a city.”
City Hall is currently examining the legal ramifications for those establishments who may elect to keep the mandate. Absent Key2NYC, it is unclear whether a business owner can legally refuse service for someone who is unvaccinated. State law prohibits the refusal of service based on religion, marital status, age, disability, gender identity and race, but they can deny entry to customers for disorderly conduct or unhygienic behavior such as not wearing a shirt.
Asked about the matter on Monday, Adams said he did not view asking for proof of vaccination as a civil rights violation. At the same time, he said, “This is new territory for the globe.”
He said the city would be seeking to provide more information in the coming days.
A spokesman for the mayor on Thursday declined to comment on the ongoing legal discussions.
Restaurant owners, for the most part, are hoping the policy change will usher in a return to normalcy, or at least a recognition that New Yorkers must adapt to a virus that may never be completely eradicated.
“There's a lot of diverse feelings, but I think everyone collectively agrees that hopefully we are moving from pandemic to endemic,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
Rigie said it was difficult to predict how many restaurant owners might continue the vaccine mandate but that he spoke to some who were getting feedback from their staff and customers.
Danny Meyer, chief executive of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which manages more than a dozen restaurants in New York City, called the end of the Key2NYC mandate an “incredibly hopeful sign.”
In an email, he described the last two years of the pandemic as “exhausting” for restaurant owners.
Last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted the state’s “mask-or-vax” mandate in most public settings.
“It will be amazing to see our teams’ smiles again,” Meyer added. “And it’s going to be a relief for our hosts to welcome guests to our restaurants without first needing to ask for official documents.”
Dawn Kelly, who owns the Nourish Spot, a smoothie and salad eatery in Jamaica, Queens, described her state of mind as “happy but wary.”
“Is it really gone?” she wondered. “And are we moving so quickly because our city’s bottom line needs it?”
Dennis Ngo, the owner of Di An Di, a Vietnamese restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said in an email that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the lifting of the mandate. He added that he was hoping the city was “starting to put this all behind us and that we can all just learn how to live with this virus safely.”
Similar to Wladis, Ngo said he did not recollect any customers objecting to show proof of vaccination. Kelly, who relies on outdoor dining and curbside pickup, also said the mandates did not ultimately hurt her business.
But for some, Monday could not come soon enough.
Tyler Hollinger, who owns Festival Cafe on the East Side, blamed the mandates for a 30% drop in sales, largely because he argued that they deterred tourists.
“Because there might be families and individuals who are coming to visit New York City where childhood vaccination may not even be a thing,” he said.
“This is the public sector's responsibility,” he added. “And what they did was they forced small businesses to take on the burden of being the vaccination police.”
It is yet unclear whether some New Yorkers, particularly older and more vulnerable residents, will feel comfortable dining indoors without the presence of a vaccine requirement.
Massimo Felici, who owns three Italian eateries on Staten Island’s North Shore, said he has been seeing signs that fear of the virus was abating, even among the most risk averse.
He offered an anecdote about one elderly woman who he described as “COVID-conscious” and is a regular at his Belvedere Club, a restaurant that is open to members and their guests.
On Saturday, when she called to make a reservation for four, the staff informed her that the club was too busy and couldn’t accommodate her usual request for a private room.
To his amazement, the customer said that they could seat her wherever they wanted.
“This was a woman that wanted a private room every time she came and everybody had to wear a mask,” he said. “So I have to think that it's not an anomaly.”
By Wednesday, Wladis, the Manhattan restaurateur who had suffered doubts about ending the program, had also come around. He said he plans to stop checking patrons’ vaccine cards once the mayor gives the go-ahead on Monday.
“It’s time to move on,” he said.