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Masked and unmasked customers sit at a bar top in Brooklyn, talking with a bartender and sipping drinks.

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Proof-of-Vaccination Policies Are on the Rise in New York City. They Can Come at a Cost.

Some businesses across the city have been flooded with hate messages and threats of lawsuits on social media

Just over a year after opening its flagship brewery in Ridgewood, Queens, cult favorite Evil Twin expanded with a second location in Dumbo earlier this month. Unveiling a second bar was supposed to be a milestone for the decade-old brewery. Instead, it became a flash point for ongoing nationwide conversations around vaccine requirements and maskless indoor gatherings.

Shortly after the bar opened in early June, national review website the Infatuation published an article about the opening with the headline, “Evil Twin Opens a Vaccinated-Only Bar in Dumbo This Week.” Though the bar had already posted its vaccine-only policy to social media and “only got positive feedback,” according to owner Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, its Instagram accounts were flooded with comments in the days after the article appeared, with users labeling the decision discriminatory and vowing to boycott the brewery. (The headline and article have since been updated at Jarnit-Bjergsø’s request, he says.)

“It was painful to have to deal with all of this,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “The fact we opened as a vaccinated-only bar had nothing to do with us saying people who are not vaccinated are wrong.”

Despite the risk of sparking online controversy, proof-of-vaccination policies started to appear on the reservation pages and Instagram accounts of restaurants and bars across the city in May, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted more restrictions, continuing the easing he’d begun earlier in the year with the expansion of indoor dining capacities. Most recently, he announced that New York would be adopting federal guidelines and easing mask-wearing and other regulations for vaccinated people that were put in place during the height of the pandemic.

Restaurants have quickly responded. The Peruvian hotspot Llama Inn started requiring either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours in order to dine indoors, according to information listed in its Resy profile. Hutong, an upscale Northern Chinese restaurant in Midtown East, also instituted the same requirements. Brooklyn restaurateur Andrew Tarlow of Diner and Roman’s has implemented similar rules at some of his establishments.

For some restaurant and bar owners, transforming indoor dining rooms into vaccine-only spaces has meant being able to return to pre-pandemic levels of business for the first time in over a year. Many restaurateurs had put their establishments into hibernation mode, while others only decided to offer indoor seating once they were allowed to fill their spaces at half capacity or a vaccine was more widely available.

“Both Friday and Saturday night [in early June] almost broke our overall sales records, even from pre-pandemic,” says the owner of a cocktail bar in the East Village, who requested anonymity in this article to prevent online backlash against the staff. “It was a packed, crowded dancing room... It was absolutely nuts. Vaccinated people are just so pumped to come inside and be normal.”

The owner claims that business at the bar has roughly quadrupled in the past two weeks as a result of checking for proof of vaccination, as patrons no longer need to be seated or socially distanced. The bar has an employee stationed at its entrance who checks for vaccine cards, an Excelsior pass, or a negative coronavirus test from the previous 72 hours; non-vaccinated people can sit at one of nine tables outdoors.

Others, including Jarnit-Bjergsø, say they were only able to get their businesses off the ground because they could open as vaccine-only spaces. Evil Twin, which does not check proof of vaccination but operates on the honor system, has no outdoor seating due to neighborhood-wide construction in Dumbo. And the indoor layout of the bar is such that with social distancing requirements in place, Jarnit-Bjergsø could only seat a few people. “We did this because we felt that we were forced to,” he says. “We had a choice to not open at all or open in this way... I wish we didn’t have to do this.”

The brewery’s original location in Ridgewood, Queens, remains open to non-vaccinated people due to its larger outdoor seating area, Jarnit-Bjergsø says.

At the newly opened West Village restaurant Jolene, owner Gabriel Stulman says the vaccine-only policy wasn’t driven by finances but rather a desire to return to the relaxed, communal vibe that Stulman’s neighborhood spots in downtown Manhattan are known for. When Stulman opened the restaurant in the former Jones cafe space in late May, he and the staff voted unanimously to have a vaccination requirement for customers to dine indoors, while the outdoor dining patio has no restrictions. Due to the policy, vaccinated customers can ease back into dining without barriers, he says.

Wooden tables and chairs and light brown booths are visible inside a small restaurant dining room
Jolene’s dining room
Eric Medsker/Happy Cooking Hospitality

“This has all been gradual steps,” Stulman says of the inch-by-inch return to indoor dining since the start of the year. “To me, it’s like, what’s the next gradual step? The next gradual step is to have two different [dining] zones.”

Those decisions have come at a cost, though, some owners say. Evil Twin continues to receive hate messages and threats of lawsuits on social media more than a week after announcing its decision to require vaccinations, according to Jarnit-Bjergsø. Those messages, he suspects, aren’t coming from regular patrons of Evil Twin — who expressed support for the policy in the bar’s original Instagram post — and, based on the profiles of some commenters, may not even becoming from people who live in New York City, he says.

The anonymous owner of the East Village bar, meanwhile, received comments on Instagram calling its proof-of-vaccination policy “discriminatory” and likening vaccine requirements to fascism. The owner speculated that online comments may be one reason some restaurants and bars choose to abide by the honor system rather than checking for documentation at the door and turning customers away, which could spark backlash on social media.

At restaurants, however, the response has been more measured compared to bars, where the difference in outdoor seating and indoor party vibes are stark. According to Stulman, Jolene hasn’t received any negative feedback from customers at the restaurant about the policy. Chef Jonathan Benno says that at his upscale Italian spot Leonelli in Nomad’s Evelyn Hotel, only a few walk-in customers have “not been happy with the policy,” although they were comfortable sitting outdoors.

A red and white curbside outdoor dining patio with a covered awning
Leonelli’s outdoor seating
Courtesy of Leonelli

Leonelli hasn’t drawn any criticism online in Yelp reviews or Resy feedback, and there were only “a few snarky comments on Instagram,” Benno says.

As has been the case time and again throughout the pandemic, New York has left businesses largely on their own to interpret and enforce the latest health guidance, which has also fueled the negative customer reactions. Jarnit-Bjergsø expressed frustration about the last-minute delivery and lack of clarity around the state’s guidelines for vaccinated customers at restaurants and bars. “I think it’s extremely wrong that New York State says there’s no more masks required for vaccinated people and no social distancing, without giving any guidelines with how that’s going to work,” he says.

And soon enough, the guidance will change again. Gov. Cuomo announced on Monday that once 70 percent of adult New Yorkers have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, restaurants will no longer have to adhere to pandemic-related operating restrictions. Dining rooms will no longer have to follow social distancing and health screening requirements for any customers, vaccinated or not, at least by state mandate.

Still, there’s little detail on how vaccine requirements should play out at the city’s restaurants and bars in the meantime. “That puts everything on all of the businesses,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says.

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