A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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D.C. will require customers to be vaccinated to dine or drink indoors starting in January, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at a press conference this morning. The policy will apply to bars, restaurants, nightclubs, indoor cultural and entertainment facilities, indoor exercise and recreation facilities, and places where meetings are held.

Patrons will have to show proof that they have received at least one vaccine dose on Jan. 15. One month later on Feb. 15, patrons will need to show proof of two doses. These restrictions apply to those patrons who are 12 and older. People can show their card, a photocopy or photo of their card, an immunization record from a physician, or a record on an app like Clear. The mandate does not cover employees of these establishments.

Read the mayor’s order here. It specifies that customers making “quick trips” like ducking into a restaurant to pick up takeout are exempt.

At Bowser’s Dec. 20 press conference, a reporter asked the mayor if she would consider implementing a vaccine mandate for activities like indoor dining. “We continue to invest in learning how that’s going to affect us right now in the surge,” she said Monday. “Not today.”

The mayor’s order issued the same day, however, strongly encouraged businesses to adopt strategies like requiring staff and patrons to provide proof of vaccination or the results of a negative COVID-19 test.

Earlier this week, Boston and Chicago both announced proof-of-vaccination policies that will take effect in January. Philadelphia’s mandate also kicks in next month. Customers already need to be vaccinated to dine inside in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City. Some cities like New Orleans will also accept negative COVID-19 tests. Enforcement in these cities has been uneven.

Maybe it was peer pressure that moved the needle for the mayor or maybe it was the nearly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases the District recorded from Dec. 17 through Dec. 20. In this time period, there was only one recorded death—a 56-year-old woman whose vaccination status is unknown. Bowser says D.C. is currently in the midst of a “winter surge.”

This time last year, Bowser imposed an indoor dining ban that lasted from Christmas Eve to Jan. 22. Now that vaccines are widely available, a broad measure like that seems less compelling. Some of the business owners City Paper reached heard an announcement was coming today and feared it was another shut down.

“Mandates are never ideal, but we are at an inflection point with this virus and we expected that additional measures may be considered to maintain health and safety,” says Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger. “We are seeing vaccine requirement mandates for indoor dining play out in many cities across the country and we are hopeful that these additional precautions will avoid further rollback for our local businesses recognizing their extreme fragility right now.”

“There have been frequent comparisons between now and 2020, but we know very well it’s not 2020 because of the vaccine,” Bowser said at the briefing today. “We have a safe and effective vaccine that’s available for people five and older. In 2020, we had to shut down because we didn’t know a lot about the virus and we didn’t have effective interventions. Now we do. Vaccines are working and they’re working well to keep people out of the hospital and keep people from dying of COVID-19.”

Businesses and their employees are feeling the effects of the winter surge. Temporary restaurant and bar closures started to mount late last week. Some owners paused operations out of an abundance of caution while others reported positive tests or exposures among their staff. Maketto, Pow Pow, Pie Shop, and Espita closed their dining rooms and switched to takeout. Buffalo & Bergen‘s Capitol Hill location and Sauf Haus/Public Bar Live shut down for the foreseeable future.

Other restaurants such as Michele’s and Maiz64 responded to cresting COVID-19 cases by instituting new proof-of-vaccination policies this week. Sweet Science Cafe upped the ante by requiring either proof of a booster shot or a negative COVID-19 test on top of standard proof of vaccination. A host of other bars, restaurants, and cafes didn’t wait for the city and started requiring proof of vaccination over the summer.

While the mayor’s mandate now allows restaurant workers to tell customers they’re enforcing a city-wide policy, employees like hosts are still the enforcers. Employees have encountered some resistance or harassment from diners while asking for proof of vaccination in the past. Other establishments found their patrons to be supportive.

“I want to see vaccine mandates everywhere—and if the District will not enforce one, individual establishments should,” a D.C. resident told City Paper earlier this month when we asked diners for their hopes about eating out in 2022. “We are well past the point where any accommodations should be made for the willfully unvaccinated, particularly with regards to doing things like eating and drinking indoors in close proximity to others. The overwhelming majority of adults in the region are vaccinated. Instituting a vaccine mandate at restaurants and bars will provide a greater level of safety for everyone.”

Chef Rob Rubba is one restaurant owner who already had a proof-of-vaccination policy in place. He also delayed opening Oyster Oyster‘s Shaw dining room until his entire team could get vaccinated. “We want our guests to feel comfortable when they come here and know what we’re about,” he says. “It’s not political. We believe in the science.”

Rubba thinks the city is being prudent. “It’s a good move to create a safe dining scene right now while we see this rise in cases,” he says, also noting the policy might incentivize more people to get vaccinated or boosted. “What entertainment and joy we can have in life we need to protect that right now and restaurants are one of those places.”

But even with a proof-of-vaccination mandate from the city, indoor dining is still a risky activity for diners and restaurant workers because breakthrough cases can occur. Jessica, a general manager of a lounge in D.C., recently tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. She wishes the city implemented an indoor dining vaccine mandate sooner.

“There was no reason to lift a mask mandate without enforcing vaccine mandates,” Jessica says. Bowser rescinded the initial indoor mask mandate in November and reinstated it on Monday. “Being safe is out the picture at this point when you work in this industry. Safer, yes. We already know the virus can spread through vaccinated and not, but it is less severe if you are vaccinated and boosted.”

Jessica is pleased with the way her employer is handling the pandemic, but she hopes other hospitality businesses are following proper protocols, especially after an employee tests positive for the virus.

That isn’t happening at at least one downtown D.C. restaurant, according to a server who works there. They asked to remain anonymous to protect future employment opportunities. Several of their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19 last week. The restaurant hasn’t closed or called diners who might have been exposed, according to the server.

“I feel like companies aren’t concerned about our health,” they say. “When we start asking questions and are concerned, we get no answers about compensation and time off. They didn’t even tell us to get tested.”

The server isn’t comforted by the news of the city’s vaccine mandate. “Our staff was fully vaccinated and this outbreak still happened,” they say. “I understand [vaccines] prevent serious illness and hospitalization or death, but it doesn’t stop the spread of the variant. It doesn’t take away from the fact that we have to be out of work for 10 days if we get it with no type of relief.”

(According to DC Health’s Patrick Ashley, unvaccinated D.C. residents are 15 times more likely to become hospitalized with COVID-19 than vaccinated residents. He also says fully vaccinated people with booster shots are 20 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people.)

A bartender at a D.C. restaurant, who is isn’t feeling well and is awaiting the results of a PCR test, calls a vaccine mandate “fantastic,” but also echoes others’ concerns. “A vaccine mandate would make me feel safer, however with this new variant it seems to be affecting anyone and everybody,” they say, also requesting anonymity for job security reasons. “It would be nicer if people would use their mask in better ways instead of sitting down and taking them off. I think the mayor’s done a really crap job of all of this.”

At the press conference on Monday, City Paper asked DC Health representatives for a refresher on what restaurants or bars should do if an employee tests positive. They pointed to this guide on best practices. In the District, workers who contract COVID while on the job are eligible for unemployment insurance and might be eligible for workers’ compensation. But what should they do when they’re simply too anxious to come to work?