The Omicron wave has forced much of the restaurant industry into a modified shutdown again. Case numbers are skyrocketing, and some restaurants are responding by temporarily closing or pivoting back to delivery and take-out only, in order to keep both patrons and workers as safe as possible. Many restaurants offering dine-in are requiring proof of vaccination, whether it’s mandated by their county or not. And now, some restaurants are taking it a step further — requiring patrons to be not just “fully vaccinated,” but have proof of a booster shot as well.
Across the country, restaurants are beginning to mandate booster shots for eligible diners. In San Francisco, Cassava and Zuni Cafe both made the change, with the latter saying those who aren’t yet eligible for a booster must show proof of when they received their last shot: If a diner has two shots but is still ineligible for a booster, they can eat indoors; in any other scenario, having just two shots limits them to outdoor tables. Baker Miller became the first restaurant in Chicago to require boosters for diners, with owner Dave Miller saying he made the choice because they can’t afford to close. “We need the revenue to survive the winter. We had to decide what we think is safest,” he told Eater Chicago. “The studies seem to show that the booster seems to contain potential spread [of the virus].”
In possibly the biggest push for boosted dining, Danny Meyer recently announced that all workers at Union Square Hospitality Group’s 18 restaurants (though not at Shake Shack) must get a booster shot within 30 days of eligibility, and patrons will have to show proof of a booster by mid-January. “At this point, the science has changed,” he told CNBC. “We now know that ‘fully vaccinated’ includes boosters. We didn’t have eligibility for booster shots back in August. Things have moved so rapidly.”
The official definition of “fully vaccinated” right now does not actually include boosters. But that could be changing. Scientists seem to agree that the Omicron variant reduces the efficacy of one- and two-dose COVID vaccines, and that a booster significantly raises protection. Dr. Anthony Fauci said in December it is now a matter of “when, not if” the definition changes to include a booster dose. “I don’t see that changing tomorrow or next week, but certainly if you want to talk about what optimal protection is, I don’t think anybody would argue that optimal protection is going to be with a third shot.”
Some locales are beginning to set regulations around boosters. Hawai’i’s Maui County is mandating that restaurant, bar, and gym patrons show proof of a booster shot, and New York governor Kathy Hochul has said the state plans to change the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a booster (New York City currently mandates anyone over the age of 12 must be fully vaccinated to eat indoors). But most people don’t have a booster yet. According to the CDC, 62 percent of people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated by the current definition. Of those, 68.8 million, or about a third of fully vaccinated people, have gotten a booster dose, and that number obviously varies depending on where you are. For instance, only 20 percent of Maui County residents have received a booster. And globally, the number is still much lower, considering billions of people have yet to even receive a first dose.
There’s also the fact that restaurants continue to struggle, and setting another bar for entry — even one that protects workers and patrons — is a risk. After Baker Miller announced in late December it would be requiring boosters, it temporarily shut down dine-in service, and only be open for walk-up takeout and delivery. “We’ve been getting a LOT of hate and threats from the anti-vaccine crowd. We feel anxious about dealing with them if they decide to show up and harass our team,” read an Instagram post. “No, this doesn’t mean that they win and no it doesn’t mean we’re going to back away from our policy. BUT we… would rather spend our time focused on making sure your desserts are great as well as planning for the New Year.”
Requiring boosters is also an uphill battle if you’re operating a restaurant in a state or county with no vaccine or mask mandate. Lucille, a pizzeria in Madison, Wisconsin, recently required booster shots for attendees of its New Year’s Eve party, but is stopping short of requiring them for restaurant patrons. “Boosters are not required at this time as there are too many ineligibilities in the marketplace,” it says on its website. However, Lucille is beginning to require proof of full vaccination, the first restaurant to do so in Dane County.
The fact that some restaurants are still vanguards for requiring proof of vaccination, while others are asking for booster shots, highlights the haphazard nature of public health decisions in the U.S. throughout the pandemic. The questions of whether to mandate vaccines, or boosters, or pivot to takeout all stem from the same problem — that this has been largely up to individuals to figure out. Though everyone should strive to use common sense, you should not have to be an infectious disease scientist to run a restaurant or dine out, and given the conflicting information (Stay home! But keep going to work! But don’t go out! But support local businesses!) it sometimes feels impossible to know what’s actually a reasonable risk.
If and when the official definition of “fully vaccinated” changes to include a booster shot, these restaurants may be well positioned by having customers already used to that requirement, and may have begun a trend. Or by that time, a dozen new factors could pop up that completely change the calculus of eating out yet again. As has been the case for nearly two years, everyone is scrambling. But also, getting boosted is not a bad idea.