Before Richard Gusler announced that his Raleigh, North Carolina, sports bar, the Players Retreat, would be requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining, he asked Yelp and Tripadvisor how he could prepare for an onslaught of one-star reviews. “They were pretty well aware of what was going to happen and had set up teams that were monitoring things like that,” Gusler says. The negative reviews came quickly, as did calls and emails accusing the restaurateur of discriminating against unvaccinated people — even though people who haven’t been vaccinated are still allowed to eat on the restaurant’s patio.
The commenters “seem to be mostly people from out of state, not people locally, which is interesting,” Gusler says. “But it’s calmed down, and I’ve been completely surprised by how supportive the community has been. Everyone thought we would just get killed, business-wise, and instead our business is up about 9 percent.”
Gusler isn’t alone. Restaurant owners across the country are experiencing similar waves of backlash after announcing vaccination requirements for anyone who wants to dine indoors. Their Yelp pages get overrun with one-star reviews from people who have never eaten there; their Instagram posts get spammed with vitriolic comments; their inboxes and voicemails get flooded with messages. Many of the comments are eerily similar: angry anti-vaxxers accuse restaurateurs of medical segregation, comparing vaccine requirements to racial discrimination.
Carlo Lamagna, the owner of Magna Kusina and Kantina in Portland, Oregon, says he’s been accused of supporting “segregation” and “apartheid” after announcing on August 6 that his Filipino restaurant would require all customers age 12 and up to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last two days. “They’re calling me, a brown person, a Nazi!” Lamagna says of the commenters. “This harassment, to me, at first, was infuriating, but I have to keep reminding myself that these people hide behind the veil of social media.”
Tracy Chang, the owner of Pagu in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has gotten similar messages since reopening the restaurant for indoor dining in mid-June. “There’s folks calling us communist. There’s folks saying that this is like segregation,” she says. “And then there’s just also been a lot of one-star reviews that have no comments.”
Earlier this month, Yelp rolled out a new feature adding two new filters — “proof of vaccination required” and “all staff fully vaccinated” — to user searches for restaurants and other businesses. It also began monitoring the Yelp pages of all businesses who list their staff’s vaccination status or requirements for customers, to prevent “review bombing.” Since January, Yelp has put more than 100 “unusual activity alerts” on businesses’ Yelp pages after they’ve been review-bombed, often for requiring patrons to wear masks or, more recently, to show proof of vaccination status. Yelp says it’s taken down more than 4,500 reviews that violated its content policies since January.
“Tackling ‘review bombing’ incidents has become an increasingly significant issue in the online review platform ecosystem, which is why Yelp has heavily invested in addressing this phenomenon for years through our Consumer Alerts program,” Noorie Malik, Yelp’s VP of user operations, says in an emailed statement. Gusler says Yelp has been helpful thus far, and has quickly taken down reviews written by people who have never been to the restaurant and are clearly upset about the vaccination policy.
The anti-vax backlash has spilled over into real life, too. Kraig Rovensky, the local president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild in Seattle, says he received several threats after the bar where he works began requiring customers to be fully vaccinated. “Now, I think we’re at a week since we [implemented] the vaccine, and I’m at nine death threats,” he says. “Five personal to my own Instagram, and two phone calls directed to the bar, and one to my actual personal cell phone, as well as one to my face at the bar. She threatened to follow me home and murder me, which was pretty intense.”
But not everyone who wants to require customers to be fully vaccinated can actually do so. Pam Pritchard owns the Tigress Pub in Austin, Texas, where a state law prohibits businesses from asking customers for so-called “vaccine passports.” Instead, she’s encouraging customers to be vaccinated and masked, and to just “be respectful.”
“It puts a lot of people in a very awkward position,” Pritchard says of Texas’s anti-vaccine requirement law. She’s hoping that the FDA fully approves the vaccines soon, because FDA approval might make legal challenges to vaccine mandates more difficult. “I want somebody coming into my bar to feel the most comfortable, and I think they’re going to feel most comfortable knowing that vaccination status needs to be seen,” Pritchard says. “We’re a tiny place, and we know our regulars really well. I’m doing it for them, and I’m doing it for my staff.”
Although restaurant owners have come to expect negative reviews and comments from people who oppose their vaccination policy, everyone I spoke with said the support they’re getting from actual customers and members of their community outweighs the backlash.
Ari Miller, the owner of Musi in Philadelphia, says the negative reviews he’s receiving are coming from a vocal minority of people who have never been to his restaurant. “There’s a couple of things that were clearly trolls. I spoke to other restaurants or friends, and they were like, ‘Oh, I got this exact same letter,’ or ‘That exact form letter came from a different email address.’”
Musi hasn’t even reopened yet — Miller says the negative reactions came after he planned a dinner for friends and family to test out what reopening would look like, and decided that everyone in attendance would have to be fully vaccinated. But he says the response has been mostly positive, with “people saying they want to come to my restaurant with a vaccination card as soon as I’m willing to accept them inside.”
Chang, the owner of Pagu, agrees. “Nine out of 10 people who show up at the door are very supportive, and thank us for taking this measure,” she says. “They tell us that they feel safer, they tell us that it’s their first time dining indoors or dining out of their homes at all since the pandemic. The one out of 10 negative reactions that we have is mostly online.”
Still, Chang worries about potential escalation, like in-person harassment or even violence. “Would we be further targeted because we’re female-owned and because I’m Asian as well? That’s just a whole other can of worms.”
Despite the threats and harassment, Chang says requiring customers to be vaccinated is worth it because it keeps her employees — and their families — safe. Nearly half of Pagu’s 46 employees are parents, or live with children too young to be vaccinated, and many are immigrants who send money to their relatives in other countries where vaccines aren’t readily available yet. “They cannot afford not to work,” Chang says, “and they certainly cannot afford to have COVID.” But at this point, Chang’s restaurant absolutely can afford to lose business from anti-vaccine customers who likely never patronized Pagu in the first place, even if it means having to monitor Yelp and Instagram for threatening comments and hateful reviews.
Gaby del Valle is a freelance reporter who primarily covers immigration and labor.