Insights / A Real-World Guide to Handling Vaccination Mandates at Your Restaurant
A Real-World Guide to Handling Vaccination Mandates at Your Restaurant

Vaccine and mask mandates feel like that old joke so many places in America make about their weather: If you don’t like it, wait five minutes. As confusing as they can be for regular folks, mandates present a compound challenge for anyone running a restaurant. A few states have statewide mandates, as do several major cities. Meanwhile Tennessee and Montana have outlawed mandates, and as of early 2022, nine other states have passed laws requiring that mandates have exemptions. And after months of pitched battles in court, the Biden Administration’s attempts at nationwide vax-or-test mandates for large employers ended in a stalemate that left legal mandates in place only for health care workers.

It’s hard to claim that there is one ideal, scientifically bulletproof standard for mandates when they differ so widely across cultural and political climates. But every restaurant operator has to draw the line somewhere: What’s legally required, what’s common sense, and what’s the best for your particular establishment. These days it’s getting harder and harder simply to explain to customers the reality restaurants are operating under.

Enforcing the Covid-era policies of your state, city, or individual restaurant is bound to present challenges. Because no matter what the pandemic is putting 330 million Americans through right now, there’s always going to be a customer who decides, for whatever reason, to push back on your staff's requests. If someone’s going to be That Person, there’s no perfect way to handle the situation. But here’s a tip sheet from the few restaurant folks willing to talk about an emotionally draining topic.

What the authorities recommend you say when people don’t want to show proof of vax

Most of us with public-facing jobs were happy to get our vaccination and booster. And many patrons were very happy to return to a “normal” dining experience. Of course, as with all things Sars-CoV2, that quickly changed. The reality is, for many in the restaurant industry, we just don’t have a choice about open or not, indoor dining or not.

Trying to thread the make-the-customer-happy needle is the hardest it’s ever been. You can shrug your shoulders and let the rules slide, but if one of your seven employees then gets sick, that might be the end of your run as a business. (Or the end of your employee. Just look at how many line cooks died during the first year of the pandemic.)

In New York, for example, the state mandate to insist on proof of vax to dine indoors was a relief to many front line workers, even if it is annoying to have to police every single person who walks through the door. If someone decides to debate your front of house staff, here’s what the state of New York recommends, with suggested de-escalation language from the state’s Center for Creative Conflict Resolution.

Demonstrate listening and understanding: “I hear this is a real inconvenience for you this evening. You are a regular and valued customer and we will do whatever we can to make sure you feel welcome here.”

Empathize:“There have been many changes over the last year and I know it’s difficult. I do understand your disappointment. I’m sorry that this is frustrating.”

Be clear in your position: “We are required to enforce this policy as per NYC regulations. I cannot admit you without proof of vaccination. Please do bring your vaccination card the next time you visit us if you want to visit us indoors.”

Offer options: “For now, can I show you some good seats for outdoor dining or offer you a takeout menu? Or if you are able to go home and obtain proof of vaccination, I’d be happy to hold a table for you.”

Disengage: “Thank you for doing your best to be patient through this. We look forward to seeing you soon.”

If you’ve been working in a restaurant the past couple of years, you know these prompts read almost as satire. Actual conversations tend to be much quicker. They look more like this:

“Hi, can I see your vaccinations?”

“Covid is fake."

“Hi, can I see your vaccinations?”

“Up yours.”

“Hi, can I see your vaccinations?”

“Aaaah! Why are you a sheep?”

“Hi, can I see your vaccinations?”

“You know we’ve reached herd immunity already.”

“Hi, can I see your vaccinations?”

“You don’t want my money?”

It goes on like this. It's utterly exhausting.

How to handle things in the real world

You can’t fully foolproof any space that’s open to the public — it’s just a fact of life, there are too many of them. But you can take some clear measures to take some pressure off your front of house, to protect the health of your staff, and to make a pleasant environment for the rest of your customers, who also would prefer a minimum of drama in their date night.

Just keep the doors shut. All kidding aside, this actually works. Fancy Nancy, in Brooklyn, switched to take-out only, and has remained so for almost two years. Arizmendi Bakery, in Emeryville, California, also pivoted to not letting customers inside. “It just doesn’t make sense for us,” baker-owner Jarah Blum says. “We did away with the few tables inside, we take orders at the window, and we now have a dedicated runner for the outside tables.” This isn’t a perfect solution, but for many types of establishments, it’s definitely the cleanest.

Post clear, unmistakable signs. Large signs, with the local mandate/law right at the front, can let people know what needs to happen before they get to a staffer. Hopefully anyone who has a problem with your policies has the chance to do that math outside, potentially without ever stopping to bother.

Set up your front of house to have every chance of success. If someone does walk in and take umbrage with the stated policies (or with, uh, state law), they’re going to be rudest to the very first human they encounter. If that’s a 17-year-old hostess, as I once was, it’s simply not going to be a fair fight. Someone with bearing, who appears to carry the full authority of the establishment, is probably best to be greeting customers these days. This is not to say the manager, who is probably running food and answering phones and presenting bottles, needs to stand at the door. Just someone with a presence.

Deploy your most boring information, dispassionately. If you’re enforcing state law, say so. Say how long it’s been state law. Say what the penalties are for your establishment if you don’t enforce it. Facts are handy things when they’re dull. They drain emotional people of the will to fight.

Don’t be afraid to crack wise. Even the most difficult people can be susceptible to humor. Break the tension: “It’s not like I’m asking you to do the chicken dance — I just wanna see your vax card.” It’s true, though, that you really could insist someone do a chicken dance. Outside of being verbally or physically abusive, or discriminatory against a protected class of patron, restaurant operators have a huge degree of latitude to boot people out the door. So be authoritative, and remind them of the bright side here. We’ve come a long way from all being in it together but at least I didn’t ask you to do the Macarena.

[Photo by GegenWind Photo on Unsplash]

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