Qui Qui DC Chef and Owner Ismael Mendez
Qui Qui DC Chef and Owner Ismael Mendez Credit: Jessica van Dop DeJesus

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At Central Michel Richard downtown, Annie Boutin King greets three young adults as they come in for lunch. “Happy New Year,” she says. “Do you have a reservation? Do you have your vaccination card?” No, no reservation, but they have photos of their vaccine cards on their phones. One says she didn’t know it was required. “We’ve done it since mid-September—that way you feel safer to come here,” Boutin King tells her.

“[Being] vaccinated doesn’t mean a thing as far as getting COVID,” a woman in the group responds. “Eh, you won’t die,” Boutin King says. “You’ll catch it still,” the woman responds. Boutin King shrugs. “I prefer that to dying,” she says and leads them to a table. 

“One will always comment, but that’s alright, you know,” Boutin King says. While City Paper stood at the host stand to observe proof of vaccination enforcement for an hour and a half during a recent Wednesday lunch rush at Central, discourse never escalated beyond this sort of back and forth. Even the diners Boutin King turns away without proof of vaccination leave without much of a fuss.  

In a few days, workers at all D.C. bars and restaurants will be in Boutin King’s shoes. The first phase of the District’s indoor vaccine mandate takes effect on Jan. 15 at 6 a.m. While it will be a new step of service for most hospitality businesses, about 100 restaurants and bars have been asking for proof of vaccination dating back to the summer. City Paper spoke with employees at establishments that have had a little practice so their industry workers and customers can learn what to expect. 

The vaccine mandate arrives after the omicron variant derailed the D.C.’s command of COVID-19 in a matter of weeks. Mayor Muriel Bowser calls the current crisis, during which the city is seeing thousands of new confirmed cases per day, a “winter surge.” The vaccine mandate and the reinstated mask mandate form part of her response. Other cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle enacted their own citywide mask and vaccine mandates last year. 

Some spots that required proof of vaccination ahead of the city, when the delta variant was the primary concern, were rewarded with a glut of patrons. At Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, the policy inspired a confidence unseen during the pandemic. General Manager Cathy Nagy found herself serving a crowd four-people deep at the upstairs bar for Wednesday night jazz jams. “People are afraid of making people angry,” Nagy says, referring to vaccine requirements. “I don’t think they realize it’s really gonna help you overall.”

Omicron, however, has quickly eroded that level of confidence. Dozens of businesses enacted temporary closures over the usually profitable holiday season. A few said they were acting out of an abundance of caution, while others had too many staff members out sick to operate. Dining rooms have been sparsely populated and the winter weather has stifled the appetite for eating outdoors. 

Even the definition of “fully vaccinated” is in flux for businesses with their own policies. Sweet Science Coffee in NoMa wants its patrons to demonstrate they’ve gotten a booster shot. If they haven’t been boosted, they can show the results of a negative COVID-19 test from the previous 24 hours. The city is only requiring proof of one dose from Jan. 15 to Valentine’s Day. Come Feb. 15, the mandate shifts to one dose of Johnson & Johnson or two doses of Moderna or Pfizer for people 12 and older.

Despite breakthrough cases, experts hold that omicron shouldn’t diminish confidence in the vaccine. “It just solidifies it,” says Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Our goal has never been and could never have been to eradicate a virus like this. It’s always been to tame it.” To that extent, the vaccines are performing as expected by preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death.

When early adopters in the hospitality industry announced proof-of-vaccination policies, it wasn’t always the road of least resistance. When Cotton and Reed’s rule took effect Aug. 13, earnings fell 38 percent from the previous month. It’s unclear why.

 “This is always the bartender’s Monday morning quarterbacking of why was our Saturday slower than normal,” says Jordan Cotton, who co-owns the rum distillery near Union Market. “Is it because it rained? Is it because Congress is out of session? Is it because of the vaccine mandate?” They didn’t consider changing course, but it was hard. “You want to make the right decision and feel great about it,” Cotton says. “We felt like we made the right decision and felt just OK about it.”

Sales evened out, but not before some workers moved on. One employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of his documentation status, left after his tips fell by half. We’ll call him Eric. “It became frustrating to be there for like eight hours and if you make $200, that’s a lot,” he says. “I was happy they were requiring it, I just didn’t think that D.C. was going to be so pushy against it.”

Many patrons were understanding, but it just takes one unvaccinated individual in a group for the whole party to walk away. “It just makes you feel like shit,” he says. It became frustrating to tell people they couldn’t stay when he knew that also meant he would earn less. Some of the people he turned away became confrontational. One would-be patron who got caught faking a vaccine card threatened staff, according to Cotton. 

Some believe a citywide mandate will spare workers some of these kinds of unpleasant interactions. Cotton says when the business enforced its own policy to try and maintain the “healthiest space possible,” the security personnel checking proof of vaccination experienced harassment that sometimes escalated to violent threats. “If that decision gets taken out of our hands, then we’re not the bad guy.”

Songbyrd Music House co-owner Joe Lapan has been advocating for the requirement to come from the city since the beginning of the pandemic. “If someone asks me, ‘Well, justify your policy based on science,’ that’s not what I’m equipped to do,” Lapan says. “Businesses aren’t necessarily in the business of arguing with their customers.”

At Songbyrd, they’ve had to refund some tickets purchased before they announced their policy, but most customers have tolerated it. Lapan questions how much an establishment’s location informs how clientele will respond to proof-of-vaccination requirements. In parts of the city that see many tourists or areas where there are lower rates of vaccination, workers may not be able to predict what responses they’ll receive when working the door. 

The Bowser administration has said one of the chief reasons behind the forthcoming mandate is to increase vaccination rates in the District. A study from Oxford University found that requiring vaccination for things like dining out led to increased vaccine uptake 20 days before and 40 days after introduction in countries with lower-than-average vaccination participation. People 30 and younger raced to get vaccinated the fastest. That said, the study also found that requiring proof of vaccination did little to persuade those who were staunchly against the vaccine.

The impact private business mandates have is only a drop in the bucket by comparison, but it’s something. Nagy can count a handful of Mr. Henry’s regulars who got vaccinated because of the bar’s policy. “That isn’t why I did it, but if it makes you safer and lets you live a better life, thank goodness that’s what pushed you,” she says.

Not every business that instituted its own vaccination requirement stuck with it. Pho Banh Mi Bar and Grill in Woodbridge, Virginia, abandoned its policy in early November. In a phone call with City Paper, the restaurant cited low case numbers. They have not reinstated it as Fairfax County has returned to high levels of community transmission. The restaurant’s owner, Francis Do, previously told the Post sales fell 25 to 30 percent after he began requiring proof of vaccination.

Jose Andrés’ downtown D.C. restaurants, which include Jaleo, Zaytinya, China Chilcano, Oyamel, and barmini/minibar, downgraded their requirement to a “request,” in October. The reversal was surprising given ThinkFoodGroup was one of the first major local restaurant groups to announce a proof-of-vaccination policy in August. “I’m proud that many small businesses have stepped up with smart decisions showing bigger guns the way,” Andrés said at the time. 

ThinkFoodGroup declined to provide a reason for the change, but falling revenue and the burden put on understaffed crews may be factors. “When we did have folks who were visiting from out of town, I did notice a certain amount of guests walking back out and not staying to dine in,” says one worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak for ThinkFoodGroup. Let’s call them Adrian

Not all left quietly. “Every now and then, there would be someone who would take out their frustrations on our host,” Adrian says. Their earnings remained largely unchanged, but given how many parties decided not to dine, they estimate that waitstaff lost money overall. Regulars, Adrian says, didn’t bristle at the policy and posted up at the bar.

“With vaccination requirements, there’s no way [I’d host]” Adrian continues. “No, I’m sorry. I’d rather dishwash, I’d rather bus, and that’s the terrible part. It’s not the actual job, it’s the people. It was jarring. I’ve never seen so many people be so rude and disrespectful and mean to the hosts and, at the same time, [I’d never] seen so many people be so nice and grateful.”

Checking proof of vaccination has been like “pulling teeth” at points, according to Chris, an assistant manager at Bedrock Billiards in Adams Morgan. He says some people who were denied entry would later call the bar to berate a bartender or security. Chris also says they caught others using fake vaccine cards or cards that didn’t match their IDs. Most of the interactions were civil. “We’ll call them out and they won’t argue,” Chris explains. “They know it’s fake, we know it’s fake.” Cards lacking the CDC insignia are a dead giveaway, he says.

But the policy also drew back a close-knit crowd of pre-pandemic regulars. “They stopped showing up when COVID originally hit,” Chris says. “Once we implemented the vaccination policy, that day, they started coming back in because they felt safer and as staff we felt safer.” Employees told Chris they felt less stressed when customers weren’t wearing masks.

At Oyster Oyster in Shaw, general manager Laura Jackson has seen similar levels of appreciation. “People feel safe and we have gotten business because of that,” she says. “So many people, especially older and immunocompromised people, have told me specifically that they’re eating here because they feel safe and they know that they can relax and enjoy themselves.” 

Jackson agrees with Chris. Oyster Oyster’s vaccination requirement alleviates the anxiety of having to police guests, allowing her to feel that she works in hospitality and not a hospital. 

She hasn’t noticed any fake cards, but after meeting one customer whose vaccine card was allegedly left blank after receiving their second dose, she’s on the lookout for incomplete cards. “Do I challenge that person and say, ‘I don’t believe you?’” she wonders. “It’s going to be a different kind of storm to weather, I guess, because you want business, you know?”

Some workers feel like proof-of-vaccination policies have offered some protection against getting sick. “Whatever we’re doing has been working out because not many people at 2 Amys have gotten sick,” says Enrique Mendoza, a senior cook at the pizzeria on Macomb Street NW. This is especially salient for small independent restaurants operating on thin margins, even though the city’s mandate won’t apply to employees when it launches. “Once you’re protecting your employees, you’re also protecting your business,” Mendoza says. Before widespread vaccination, working in kitchens was identified as the most lethal profession during the pandemic.

Ismael Mendez, chef and owner of Qui Qui DC in Shaw, made a similar calculus. “Everybody has a right to be vaccinated or not,” he says. “But as a small business, we can’t afford to have somebody get sick and then shut down.” Restaurants are already dealing with rising prices of ingredients and being short staffed as restaurant workers seek jobs in new fields with better pay, benefits, and hours. “At least asking for a vaccination card—it gives us some peace of mind. It’s not 100 percent. But we can breathe a little bit.”

Soon, Mendez imagines, showing your vaccine card will become normalized to the point that patrons won’t think twice about it. “It’s like going to a bar,” he says, referring to when a doorman checks ID to verify that customers are at least 21. “That’s how I see it in that I think that’s going to be the norm for a while.” 

Even in Virginia, where restrictions have generally been more lenient than the District, there are signs of shifting attitudes. Requiring proof of vaccination at the Sweet Science Coffee location in Arlington has been harder compared to D.C. “It’s been a point of contention,” says Kelton, a barista at both cafes. But, in the new year, the sheer volume of cases seems to be making an impression. “Most people see it less as a political issue and more as a safety thing. I think people are getting better about that.”