As the delta variant prolongs the Covid-19 pandemic, three major US cities — San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York City — have started rolling out vaccine requirements for anyone visiting indoor public spaces like restaurants, cinemas, and gyms. And other localities may soon follow suit: Honolulu will institute a vaccine passport system this month (patrons can also submit a recent negative Covid-19 test), while the Los Angeles City Council is considering a similar program. But these new proof of vaccination rules are already creating new problems for venues and workers, who have largely been left on their own to figure out how to enforce the requirements and how to respond when angry customers push back.
It all fits into the bigger pattern of how the United States has handled the pandemic. The US rollout of different vaccination and mask requirements has been patchwork. The White House has said it will not establish a national vaccine passport system, meaning that states, cities, and even private companies have built their own versions of vaccine passport apps (while some states, like Florida, have banned vaccine passports entirely). This checkered approach means that despite the wide availability of vaccine record apps, the only standardized way in the US to prove your vaccination status is the flimsy and easy-to-lose paper card with the CDC insignia that doesn’t quite fit in the average person’s wallet.
“A guy came in here and told the bartender, ‘I wanna see your hepatitis and your AIDS vaccine,’” Candace Hutchinson, a manager at Beachcorner Bar and Grill in New Orleans who often greets customers, told Recode. Business has been down at least a quarter since the New Orleans indoor vaccine mandate went into effect on August 16, another Beachcorner manager, Gina Perrett, told Recode, and some customers are rebelling. One customer recently threw a drink in an employee’s face over the new rules.
One effect of these vaccine rules is that they seem to be incentivizing some people to get the vaccine. Last month, 99 attendees at a New Orleans Saints game got vaccinated on-site just so they could enter the arena. In some regions in Italy, vaccination rates surged as high as 200 percent after the country instituted its national Green Pass system, which requires that people present proof of vaccination to enter indoor venues like restaurants and museums, using either a digital or paper version of their vaccine record. And France, which recently began requiring proof of vaccination for indoor and outdoor dining, domestic flights, and other indoor activities, has seen a similar boost in vaccinations.
But another effect of the new requirements is that they’ve thrust the responsibility of enforcing public health regulations on service workers, who throughout the pandemic have already had to deal with abuse from certain customers over temperature checks, mask-wearing, and social distancing. In fact, 80 percent of service workers surveyed by the group One Fair Wage last fall, which advocates against subminimum wages for tipped workers, said they saw or experienced hostility, including racism and sexual harassment, from customers while enforcing public health rules during the pandemic. That’s why some big retail chains that operate in areas without vaccine mandates are avoiding requiring proof of vaccination for customers, according to a CNN report: They don’t have the infrastructure to check IDs and fear that enforcing such a requirement could lead to problems for workers.
That leaves service workers with two bad options, One Fair Wage’s co-founder and president Saru Jayaraman told Recode. They can enforce the rules and risk harassment and lost tips, or they can overlook unsafe customer behavior and endanger their own health.
For weeks now, we have been targeted by loud, misguided, hugely invasive anti-vaxxers at Hoofland on Saturday nights. I am in ~shock~ that @JohnTory & @fordnation are leaving us to deal w/ this—ZERO help from cops, by-laws or…anything at all. An abandonment of leadership. pic.twitter.com/8hlv4FxaYo— Jen Agg (@TheBlackHoof) August 22, 2021
Some venues in New York told Recode that despite some opposition, most customers are happy to show their vaccine passes. But it’s not just customers that workers have to worry about. After Jen Agg, the owner of Bar Vendetta in Toronto, called for vaccine requirements for indoor dining, her restaurant was flooded with anti-vaccine passport protesters who, she recently told a radio station, “harass my staff and yell at me, scream in my face that we’re Nazis.”
At the same time, restaurant hosts and greeters aren’t necessarily prepared to check vaccine documents or identification cards (New York City, for example, is requiring that indoor venues confirm patrons’ state ID matches the name on their vaccine document). Melissa Fleischut, the president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, told Recode that most of the 40 operators of restaurants she’s spoken with personally have said they’ve had confusion or problems enforcing the new vaccine rules for customers.
Cities like New York and New Orleans have said they’re providing resources to restaurants and other venues that are meant to make enforcing vaccine passport systems easier, including grace periods before beginning enforcement and a training video about conflict resolution, but measures like these seem quite limited. For instance, Louisiana and New York State have released vaccine passport apps that produce QR-code-based vaccine records, an alternative to the CDC’s paper cards. While QR codes are meant to be scanned to be confirmed, several establishments told Recode that right now they’re just looking at the QR code on peoples’ phones and not actually scanning them into a separate verification app.
“Who am I to say if [a vaccine card is] real or not?” asked Regina Delfino, who runs an Italian restaurant, Mario’s, in the Bronx. “Who am I to say you’re not Santa Claus?” She said she will be the one checking peoples’ vaccine documentation at the door when New York City starts enforcing its rules later this month; the other staff at the restaurant don’t want to ask. Even without the requirement that her staffers must check customers’ vaccine status, it’s already difficult to hire people, she added.
And that highlights another problem that seems likely to arise: Some service workers may not want to enforce these new rules and deal with possible customer anger. Their employers will then have to figure out solutions on their own. As Vox’s Anna North reported this spring, many restaurants across the US have been struggling to hire enough workers to meet the return of customers. The reasons for this are varied — higher-than-usual unemployment pay has given workers more leverage in deciding where and when they’ll work; on top of that, frequently low wages and dangerous conditions in restaurants are deterring workers. Some venues in cities with the new vaccine mandates told Recode they’ve had to ask existing employees to work extra shifts, or even hired bouncers, to help check vaccine documents.
“We have the worst staffing crisis in the history of the restaurant industry in the United States,” Jayaraman of One Fair Wage told Recode. “The idea of adding requirements without raising the wage is a disaster waiting to happen.” Advocates for restaurant workers have said part of the solution involves raising wages and ending tipped minimum wages, which allow restaurants to pay workers who take home tips a wage as low as $2.13 an hour.
In the meantime, many restaurant workers are still in a double bind. Ensuring customers are vaccinated stands to make their jobs safer, but having to enforce these rules on their own has made their already hard job harder. They say that challenge could only get worse as the weather gets colder and outdoor dining becomes less and less viable.