COVID-19 rates have surged again across the country thanks, in large part, to the delta variant and loosening restrictions. In response, some major American cities have started to re-institute safety mandates for businesses: In New York, all restaurants and bars will need to start checking proof of vaccination to dine indoors starting August 16, and Los Angeles County renewed indoor mask requirements in mid-July. However, since Gov. Kate Brown lifted all restrictions on June 30, neither Oregon nor Multnomah County have instituted anything more than a mask recommendation. As a result, many bar owners and workers found themselves where they have been all throughout the pandemic: forced to develop and build their own safety precautions where necessary.
There are a number of reasons food service workers feel discomfort at the premise of instituting their own restrictions beyond state mandates: In the past, customers have screamed at employees, posted one-star Yelp reviews, and physically harmed restaurant staff enforcing COVID-19 safety policies. As a result, some industry members are leaning on the power of solidarity: The founder of one of Portland’s most influential cocktail bars, Daniel Shoemaker of Teardrop Lounge, figured it was best to have a unified front in instituting a vaccination policy. When he and his staff decided it was necessary to implement vaccination checks for all indoor diners, he reached out to his peers in the industry to form what he jokingly refers to as a “vaxx cabal,” a loose coalition of bars all requiring some proof of vaccination. “Primarily, I wanted us to have a common voice,” Shoemakers says. “I know there’s going to be vitriol and antipathy voiced online, so the hope is that we provide ground cover for each other, it’s a whole cabal of us doing this. We share the wealth and we share the burden as best we can.”
So far, Shoemaker says he has at least 15 places on board, including spots like Rum Club and Bar West; he hopes to get at least 25 on board. Rum Club’s owner Mike Shea shares Shoemaker’s sentiments about a singular voice, especially after being asked again and again to be health regulators. “It does give us some safety in numbers, [like] social media herd immunity,” Shea says. “I hate to be in this position, but I’m so tired of all of it.”
Other bars have implemented these requirements on their own, but some bar owners still lament being forced into taking the position without support from local and state authorities. Kate Wood — co-owner of cocktail lounge Wonderly and Thai bar Bang Bang — says that she and her staff decided to ask for proof of vaccination to protect themselves and their customers, but that she would have preferred some kind of guidelines from health officials. “No one seems to have the answers, not the CDC or the state, so it falls back on our shoulders,” she says.
So far, Wood and other bar owners have said the feedback from diners has been mostly positive, and that even if not, it’s the right thing to do. Aaron Hall, co-owner of the verdant, plant-filled hotel bar Hey Love, says that while initially they are only asking for proof of vaccination for those directly at the bar, the rising rates of infection and possibility of breakthrough infections even amongst the vaccinated may lead them to require it for all indoor seating. “The staff felt like it was the right thing to do, the community was overwhelmingly supportive,” Hall says. “We talk about it constantly, we see where the city is at, where the science is going, and we adjust as needed.”
That doesn’t mean these bars have been immune from attacks on social media. An Instagram post from bar and music venue White Owl Social Club about its new vaccine requirements for customers received many positive replies, but also a number of negative ones. “How is this not fascism?” one commenter asked while another wrote, “Nazis.” Others echoed some popular but misinformed sentiments about vaccinations and medical privacy. “You do know that this is completely against HIPAA laws... Expect lawsuits from people you turn away,” wrote a commenter. Most legal and medical experts have debunked this claim—HIPAA is a law that mostly applies to how healthcare providers and associated businesses (like health insurance companies) can store and transfer health information, not what patients self-disclose or what businesses can ask customers.
Still, most bar owners point out that it’s a minority of voices, albeit very loud ones. Similar social media posts from bars like Tough Luck, Hi Top Tavern, and Bar West received only supportive responses. And as for the comments on White Owl’s post, the bar’s management isn’t particularly concerned. “We are just doing what we feel needs to be done to help stop the spread of COVID while still surviving in the industry. And honestly, the crazy comments don’t even phase us at this point,” a statement from the bar reads. “All of us in the industry have been already through hell. We will get through this as well.”
• A Running List of Portland Restaurants and Bars Checking Proof of Vaccination for Indoor Dining [EPDX]
• Portland Bars Plan a “Vaxx Coalition” to Uniformly Require Proof of COVID-19 Vaccination for Entry [WWeek]
• HIPAA, the health privacy law that’s more limited than you think, explained [Recode]
• How Coronavirus Is Impacting the Portland Restaurant World [EPDX]