On August 3, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced the U.S.’s first citywide mandate requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining. If we ever want to move beyond the pandemic, this should become a mandate in every city.
Just three months ago, when the CDC announced that vaccinated people no longer had to wear masks in most indoor settings, it felt like a corner had been turned after a brutal year. But in recent weeks, the extremely contagious delta variant, paired with low vaccination rates in parts of the country, has shifted that trajectory in the U.S., and daily cases continue to rise on a trend that triggers memories of the spikes of this past winter when cases reached a fever pitch across the country — earlier this week, Florida broke its all-time record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, with more than 10,000 people hospitalized.
What sets the current spike in national cases apart from those of late 2020 is that it is — or at least, could have been — largely preventable. The rate of daily vaccination has been trending upward in parallel with growing fears of the delta variant, but nationwide only 50 percent of people eligible to get the jab have been fully vaccinated. Most of the new cases being recorded each day are in unvaccinated individuals — who, in July, also made up some 97 percent of COVID-related hospitalizations.
With delta on the rise, mask mandates, social distancing, and occupancy limits aren’t enough to make restaurants entirely safe gathering spaces — nor is it fair to require restaurateurs to indefinitely face the time-intensive and costly challenges of reimagining their spaces, their menus, and everything else about their restaurants. At this point in the pandemic, anyone who wants to eat indoors at a restaurant, and is eligible, should be required to show proof that they are vaccinated. (An obvious exception, taken into account by New York’s new mandate, is that until trials conclude and a vaccine is approved for children under 12, parents and guardians should be allowed to eat indoors with their families. Though this would mean some restaurant diners are unvaccinated, it would greatly diminish the number of unvaccinated individuals in a dining room at any given time.)
Some restaurants around the country have already started requiring proof of vaccination from those who wish to dine indoors. But much like individual restaurants and their staff having to shoulder the burden of enforcing mask mandates, this never should have been their responsibility in the first place. “Unless there is some concerted effort from the city, from the county, or from the state to help us enforce it, it’s just a paper tiger,” San Francisco restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit, who supports vaccine requirements but has yet to implement one at her restaurants, told Eater last week. “Until the city, the county, or the state comes up with some standardized way of proving someone’s vaccination record without violating their privacy, and also make it easy for us to be able to verify these things, then I don’t know how we’re supposed to do it.”
A vaccine requirement for indoor diners would protect restaurant workers as well as fellow diners — particularly as concern about breakthrough COVID-19 cases grows — allowing staff to focus on the jobs they were hired for, without the stress, anxiety, and legitimate danger that comes with being the enforcers of a scattershot health measure that has been so intensely politicized it has led to violence. Widespread mandates would also incentivize more eligible people to get the vaccine. Increasing vaccination won’t, on its own, completely temper the risk of new variants arising, but paired with social distancing and mask wearing, we can effectively lower the risk of the emergence of another new and more vaccine-resistant COVID variant.
To call for vaccination as a prerequisite for indoor dining and other activities when vaccination efforts first got underway this past spring would have been to reserve those experiences for only the most privileged: those who had the easiest access to vaccines. Though vaccine equity remains a concern, availability is now, by and large, widespread. In many parts of the country, one can walk into a local pharmacy or vaccination site and get the shot within minutes. That’s not to say vaccine distribution is perfect: There are still communities where vaccination is lagging because of structural access issues, and hesitancy due to medical racism, among other reasons. In making vaccination for certain activities a widespread requirement, government bodies would also have to own the responsibility of ensuring underserved and overlooked communities are adequately reached and served.
Requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining would certainly highlight some of the unfairness that has colored this year. My mother, for instance, is among those who are immunocompromised, and though she was able to receive both doses of her vaccine, it is possible that her health condition will not allow her to receive future booster shots. These kinds of challenges for those who are ill, or otherwise legitimately unable to receive the vaccine, could prohibit them from dining indoors, depending on the scope of the mandate. But for those with weakened immune systems, or other severe illnesses, dining in close confines with unvaccinated individuals — particularly as accounts of breakthrough cases and more contagious variants ramp up — already makes indoor dining unrealistic and potentially life threatening. All indoor activities are higher risk for unvaccinated individuals, but this is particularly true in restaurants, where masks come off to eat. It will require truly curbing the pandemic, and bringing case counts down to single and low double digits again in communities across the country for people like my mother to safely dine indoors. This is unlikely to happen soon, without serious intervention.
It’s unrealistic to imagine a suggestion such as this would be accepted in every city or state, considering how hard some leaders have fought against COVID-related public health precautions thus far. But to act as if such a measure is not necessary, as we enter yet another spike of what is now, in large part, a preventable catastrophe, would be delusional. Some Republican leaders, and other officials who claim to be so deeply concerned with the freedoms of their constituents, must acknowledge that true freedom lies in being able to engage in public life without a high risk of COVID exposure. Though this truth may not be politically expedient, it can’t be ignored.
For those who can not currently be vaccinated, safety will only ever arrive when enough people who can be, are. This will serve both to flatten the curve and take pressure off of our health system, and to mitigate the risk of this virus continuing to mutate, plunging us into a never-ending cycle. And for those who have made the conscious and voluntary decision not to be vaccinated, indoor dining remains an incredibly high-risk activity. Though they may perceive a vaccine mandate for indoor dining as an infringement on their personal freedom, preventing these people from eating indoors while a pandemic rages on is the most life-affirming and fair measure we could take. The sooner we do, the sooner each and every one of us can safely return to our favorite corner table.