At the crossroads of a culture war, logistical uncertainty, and the redoubled forces of COVID-19’s Delta variant, New York City restaurants face new mandates and vaccination requirements. At the helm of the NYC Hospitality Alliance as Executive Director, Andrew Rigie, hopes to steer the industry through turbulence as almost two years of culinary chaos drags on.
Rigie spoke last week to a group of industry leaders. organized by Singer/M.Tucker and Total Food Service. “The Wednesday Call” had become a staple for industry operators and vendors that support them through the Pandemic.
The energetic association executive explained that on Aug. 16 NYC became the first major US city to require proof of at least one vaccine dose to dine indoors—along with other indoor activities—in response to a surge in Delta variant-fueled COVID-19 cases. The mandate also applies to restaurant employees and will be enforced starting Sept. 13, after a brief transitionary period.
While most restaurants are willing to try anything to avoid more lockdowns or capacity restriction, the vaccination requirement has left the industry and city divided. “We’ve heard from a lot of restaurateurs that actually support this requirement. And we’ve heard from others that are fuming mad. Most people just want to see specifically what these requirements are going to be,” Rigie said, speaking on behalf of restaurant owners and hospitality workers dizzy from the endless whiplash of shifting guidelines. “There are so many questions that have come up and the city hasn’t given us many answers.”
This restriction is also poised to affect different areas of the city differently, driving a wedge further between areas of high vaccination rates and areas of more vaccine hesitancy. Restaurants in neighborhoods with lower vaccination rates will be forced to turn away would-be patrons and suffer economically. “Speaking with restaurants from Manhattan to Staten Island, there are a lot of different opinions and perspectives,” Rigie said, outlining the geopolitical divide among restaurants. “Unfortunately, even the idea of vaccination is highly politicized and polarized.”
One question restaurant owners are focused on across the city regards those ineligible or exempt from vaccinations — for medical or religious reasons. Owners also have questions about service providers across the industry who are not required to be vaccinated by the city in their own respective jobs, but now require vaccinations to enter a restaurant. With services like wholesale delivery and appliance repair in mind, owners are concerned by potential disruptions.
Even for those who support the mandate, enforcement is a major concern. For restaurateurs and employees who have barely endured a grueling 16 months of stress and upheaval, this mandate is another exhaustive opportunity for frustrations to boil over. Simply, many restaurant owners feel that they don’t have the resources or energy to enforce vaccination checks and survive disgruntled customers.
“I think there’s just an overall feeling amongst many restaurateurs I’ve spoken with that they are just exhausted of so much of the COVID requirements being focused on them, and being in the middle of not only a public health crisis, but kind of a culture war,” Rigie said. “People are going to hate us, not the city.”
Ultimately, the NYC Hospitality Alliance supports the city and vaccination requirement hoping that the demand will not only curb the increase in COVID-19 cases, but also attract more COVID-wary customers and labor back to restaurants. After a straining couple months of labor shortages, Rigie expects that this new requirement may bring some employees back, with the promise of a safer working environment with less risk to personal health. “The same goes for many customers. We’ve been hearing from many people who say this change will make them much more comfortable dining out and dining out more often,” Rigie said. The NYC Restaurant Hospitality Alliance also expects an increase in business from corporate events among companies that have adopted vaccine requirements already.
“On the flip side, we’re also recognizing that some employees may not want to get vaccinated and will leave, unvaccinated people won’t be able to eat indoors which will hurt businesses, and some events will be cancelled,” Rigie explained. “It’s an imperfect system, it poses challenges, and it’ll take some time to see how it all ultimately plays out.”
“It also puts restaurant workers in a difficult position to be the enforcers, so we need to urge everyone, regardless of their opinion about the vaccine requirements, to be respectful to workers,” Rigie expanded. “In the meantime, we need to keep fighting for policies to support our industry, like replenishing the Restaurant Revitalization Fund so all the restaurants and bars that got shut out if they need relief they need.”
“It’s in our industry’s best interest to get as many people vaccinated as possible. No matter what side of this requirement you fall on,” Rigie concluded taking an official stance. “The vaccine is the tool to get us out of the pandemic, so the more we can encourage people to get it, the better.”