As New York marks the two-year anniversary of the first COVID shutdown, and as the country inches toward the tragic milestone of one million pandemic deaths, I keep thinking about the tough health requirements I witnessed while eating out recently. Hosts would carefully read my vaccine card — presumably checking for the required two doses — before looking to match my name against a photo ID. Fellow diners would keep their masks on as they queued up to be verified, and employees turned away folks who couldn’t provide proof. I witnessed these rituals not just at ambitious establishments but at dive-y bars known for cheap shots of Jägermeister. The checks occurred even when staffers recognized me as a returning patron.
Does that not sound anything like the more relaxed checks in parts of New York? Of course it doesn’t, and in any case the city dropped its own vaccine requirements for restaurants, gyms, and theaters earlier this month. I was describing my time in Canada, a country where COVID mandates are so strict you need to be double vaxxed just to fly from one province to another. The particularly strong measures in British Columbia, where I was skiing, telegraph the following important lesson: Even as infection rates drop, society isn’t letting the convenience and comfort of some trump the well-being of exposed restaurant workers, children ineligible for vaccines, and immunocompromised chefs or diners.
But again, that’s Canada. In New York, newly relaxed restrictions suggest a more shameful ethos: That returning to a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy eclipses nearly everything in a city that has lost almost 40,000 people to COVID. About 11 people are still dying here every day. The dropped mandate means the lifestyle of an unvaxxed person outweigh the needs of someone — maybe a cancer patient or transplant recipient — who takes a drug that mitigates the effectiveness of their inoculation.
It’s tempting to call Mayor Eric Adams’s decision a singularly cruel and stupid one, except for the fact that it’s one that’s being repeated throughout the country, which makes the pivot more generically cruel and stupid. No, the requirement wasn’t always evenly applied; I occasionally dined at the city’s most well-funded and crowded establishments without flashing any proof. Sometimes patrons could even just show a vaxx card alone (easily forged) and a restaurant would let you in. But restaurants largely did their best to adhere to the regulations, and patrons from across the U.S. understood those rules as the tradeoff for participating in public life here.
Adams announced the loosened restrictions as a way to “open our city and get the economy back operating.” He added that “we are winning,” and while local cases have dropped from Omicron highs, over 1,200 Americans are still succumbing to COVID every single day — versus 46 daily deaths throughout our much less populous neighbor to the north. Restaurants are allowed to enforce their own mandates, though some operators are surely looking at the case of Dame, which was the target of serious protests for enforcing vaxx checks.
Dr. Jay Varma, a top health advisor to ex-Mayor Bill De Blasio, called Adams’s policy move “wrong” in a Daily News op-ed. He argued for the mandates to remain in place for now to protect against new variants — and as an incentive to get vaccinated in the first place. That’s not a point worth overlooking given how people travel across the country to dine at our globally renowned restaurants. Tens of millions of Americans remain unvaccinated, with at least 18 states boasting vaxx rates in the sub-60 percent range. And even though overall vaccinations rise to as high as 85 percent in Queens, they fall to as low as 65 percent among younger white adults in Brooklyn and Staten Island, or to 59 percent for younger Black adults in the Bronx.
We don’t know whether there will be another surge, but on this grim anniversary, the dropping of vaccine mandates conveys a dark message: that as the hospitality industry continues its reckoning over workplace conditions — amid a traumatizing pandemic — our local government isn’t even committed to continuing these mildly disruptive citywide protections for staffers. Remember, even though hospitality wages are up throughout the country — by an average of nearly $2 more per hour since pre-pandemic times — no other group of workers outside of the accommodation and food service industry have been quitting at a higher rate.
Some of those folks hesitant to keep working in restaurants are surely the parents of young children, who still aren’t eligible for shots. That reality impacts diners too. I chatted with a couple at an omakase parlor last year who didn’t eat out for nearly 18 months in deference to their kids under the age of 5, only breaking their fast when it looked like the FDA would approve shots for that group soon (that approval, alas, was delayed). And severely immunocompromised folks, millions of whom have been curtailing their public lives nationwide for the past 24 months, must now likely reassess whether they can go to a particular restaurant on a case-by-case basis, checking to see if a given venue has sufficient protections.
It’s all an astonishing way to mark two years since New York became the epicenter of the global pandemic — by leaving it to devastated restaurants to decide whether to look out for the well-being of our populace. The vaccine mandate isn’t always easy for the workers who have to enforce it, nor is it convenient for aid-deprived culinary establishments, but it’s the right thing to do. And for most folks, the biggest cost of the rule has been a 30 second delay at the host stand. We could learn a thing or two from our friends in British Columbia in this regard — and while that province is ending its restaurant mandate too in April, even Canadians will still need to be fully vaxxed just to hop on a major intercity train to get there.