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What It’s Like to Be a Restaurant’s ‘Vaccine Bouncer’

Dining room hosts have been tasked with carrying out NYC’s vaccine mandate, which recently expanded to include children ages 5 to 11. Here’s what the job is really like.

A sign is viewed at a restaurant in New York’s Upper West Side on the first day where you have to show proof of a Covid-19 vaccination to participate in indoor dining. 
NYC’s vaccine mandate for indoor dining broadens to include children ages 5 to 11 starting December 14.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

At the candlelit restaurant where I’ve worked for the past two years, on a lively corner in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, funk music and the rhythm of cocktail shakers in motion set the pace of service. Servers and food runners walk up and down the dining room runway; business as usual, except all workers wear masks now.

However, at the front door, I’m the barrier of entry. Starting in August, I began checking ID and proof of vaccination for everyone walking in, as mandated by the city. After eight years of hosting, I now serve a dual purpose with another job title as the restaurant’s designated vaccination bouncer. It’s a robotic task where I’m constantly reminding customers of basic protocol — and as of December 14, I’ll be reminding little kids to show me their passes for the green light to enter the restaurant.

Let me be clear: Despite my frustrations as the vaccination bouncer, I’m in favor of checking proof of full vaccination for adults and children 12 and older (another change to the mandate which goes into effect on December 27).

But the job of keeping everyone safer is not an easy task. There’s heavy traffic in the chaotic, claustrophobic space in front of me that is separate from the dining room. “May I see your ID and proof of vaccination?” I ask, as my mouth gets dry from repeating it over and over again.

A man spills the contents of his wallet, trying to locate his driver’s license. His wife rummages through her big, bottomless bag. “Sorry I’m fumbling,” she says. Next up, a couple is severely concentrated on pulling up the Excelsior app — New York’s app is designed for easy vaccination card access, but it’s often the opposite. The software is faulty and constantly needs to be updated. I watch error messages flash onto their screens. Now, they’re frantically searching for photos of their vaccine cards on their phones as the line grows. I’m becoming cold from the door being held open by people trying to get inside. Waiting to check their documents is causing a traffic jam. It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Friday.

A latecomer, out of breath and frazzled, rushes right past me and jets toward their party, forcing me to run after them as I crank up the volume of my voice two notches louder. “MAY I SEE YOUR ID AND PROOF OF VACCINATION. PLEASE.” This is no longer a question. It’s a demand.

Being the guard up front feels dystopian, as if I’m a crooked government official demanding to see someone’s papers. Whenever I’ve gone to a bar, even pre-Covid, everyone has their ID ready before approaching the large, male bouncer. But being a 5’1 Asian woman, I’m not the intimidating type. Customers may think that my welcoming smile means that I’ll be forgiving, and will give them a pass if they don’t have their IDs.

Since most people don’t have their documents ready before entering, I wait awkwardly, trying to make jokes about being the vaccination bouncer. When I ask, for the second time, if they have their ID as well, the average response is “Oh, you need ID, too?” Sometimes they add, in a (mostly) joking tone, “but we’re not drinking...”

It’s been four months since this mandate has been in effect. Is showing proof of vaccination just performative for those who only show it when prompted? Is it not important anymore? There are a set of items that nobody leaves their house without: cell phone, wallet, keys. Why is it that one’s proof of vaccination isn’t on this checklist?

It’s the fogginess of the brain — as if we’re somehow not still dining out during a pandemic — that gets under my skin when it takes a moment for a diner to process what’s been asked of them. I’ve witnessed my manager make a customer pull up their Facebook page to ensure that their face and name match their paper vaccination card because they left their wallet at home.

On rare occasions, some customers thank me for asking. Typically, they are older people who are more cautious about catching the virus. They feel safe when I ask. Still, there is so much pressure that has been bestowed upon me without my consent, as the city is unclear about whose job it is to enforce the new policies.

Now that the new mandate for checking children’s vaccinations for ages 5 and up has come into effect, I wonder to what extent this can be enforced. It reminds me of going to the buffet as a kid and my parents lying about my age by a few years to get the children’s discount. I looked young for my age: no further questions asked. Do I have the right to question whether a customer’s child is really four years old and not vaccinated yet?

It’s not like most 5-year-olds have proof of ID, either. Up until now, I’ve been lucky. I rarely receive pushback or have to deny entry. I anticipate that now, I’ll stand at the receiving end of rage when tourists come in with their children, hopeful for entry and unaware of the new mandate. I’ll have to turn them away, even when vaccines aren’t yet accessible to children in their country. I expect even more pushback from tourists visiting from states without this mandate. I anticipate feeling small, degraded, and in constant need of manager interference now more than ever.

Our mayor claims that the vaccine mandate keeps our communities safe, but it’s the opposite effect for restaurant workers, who are seemingly once again forgotten. Hosts are on the front lines of enforcement at restaurants and face the possibility of dangerous confrontations, yet this goes unconsidered. The mandates — like too many pandemic-born policies — are being handed out with negligence, failing to provide assistance to those who are now responsible for enforcing these laws. As hosts strive to keep restaurants safe for indoor dining, who will ensure our safety?

Audrey Alunan is a writer and service industry veteran from New York City. You can find her on Instagram at @sus7.0.