New York City restaurants are once again caught in a Catch-22. Businesses can still legally enforce their vaccine requirements to protect customers and staff, but the decision can make them more vulnerable to local groups opposing the policies. For some who have elected to keep their proof-of-vaccination requirements in place, the past two weeks have been defined by online threats, in-person protests, one-star Google reviews, and other forms of harassment. These issues aren’t new, but restaurant and bar owners say they have escalated since city officials lifted NYC’s vaccine mandate on March 7 — without a contingency plan.
“[City officials] were not ready for this,” says Carlos Cruz, a general manager of multiple Brooklyn restaurants, who spoke to Eater on the condition that his employer’s businesses would not be named because he is concerned about further retaliation. His restaurants have been flooded with violent threats over social media and email in recent weeks in regards to their ongoing vaccine requirements. “Is this a joke,” he wonders. “Or are people trying to kill us?
In light of the retaliation, and reports of in-person protests at other businesses, Cruz says that restaurants have been left to fend for themselves with little support from city officials. “Restaurant owners and managers expected this from the beginning,” he says. “I’m a little bit perplexed that the government wasn’t thinking there was gonna be consequences.”
In a statement to Eater, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams’s office condemned the protests but declined to comment on how restaurants should respond to backlash, while emails to the NYPD’s 10th Precinct, where multiple protests against vaccination policies have occurred at Manhattan restaurants in recent weeks, went unanswered.
“When Mayor Adams lifted Key to NYC rules earlier this month, he made abundantly clear that restaurants could choose to continue requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said. “We forcefully condemn any efforts to harass or intimidate business owners who have elected to keep such rules in place, and ask all New Yorkers to treat owners and staff with the respect they deserve.”
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a group that represents hundreds of food businesses across the city, recommends that restaurants notify city officials and police “if there’s a threat or serious concern.” But restaurant owners say that emails and phone calls to city officials have gone unanswered, and in some cases it’s taken more than an hour for local authorities to arrive on scene.
Natalie Freihon, owner of the Orchard Townhouse, says a group of protesters entered her Chelsea restaurant around 3 p.m. on March 16, stormed past the host stand, and occupied all of its empty chairs. When asked to provide proof of vaccination, in line with the restaurant’s ongoing policy, the protesters turned hostile, Freihon says, yelling at restaurant staff and refusing to leave. “We were close to closing the restaurant altogether,” she says.
Police arrived on scene around 90 minutes later and the protestors exited the restaurant, but they stood outside for over an hour, seemingly waiting for police officers to leave, Freihon says. Nobody was charged, and eventually the protesters left the Orchard Townhouse around 5:30 p.m., more than two hours after arriving, according to the restaurateur. They vowed to return every day until the restaurant dropped its vaccine requirement.
Following the events, Freihon says she feels forced to choose between protecting her employees from coronavirus and protecting them from coronavirus protesters. “I don’t want to lift the vaccine requirement if [my employees] are not comfortable with that, but I may not have a choice,” she says. “I don’t want them to be put in that situation again.”
The protests appear to be connected to New York Freedom Rally, a group that has organized demonstrations opposing the vaccine mandate. According to Freihon, the protests started shortly after the Orchard Townhouse appeared on this list of restaurants checking for proof of vaccination. Protesters have been using this list, and others like it, to target restaurants without any intention of actually eating at them, she says.
In addition to the Orchard Townhouse, protesters have entered the dining rooms of Joe Allen, the Eastwood, Buvette, and other Manhattan restaurants in recent weeks. The protests, however disruptive, are mostly protected under the law, and multiple owners say the protesters claimed to have a lawyer on-site to protect them from arrest.
“They knew how to skirt the line without doing anything illegal,” Patricia Howard, co-owner of Dame told Eater earlier this month, after the Greenwich Village seafood restaurant was overtaken by protesters. “It’s very hard to feel so wronged and not be able to defend ourselves.”
In Chelsea, Freihon says it felt like there was nothing she could do to stop the protesters, even though they were on private property. “If I put my hands on any of these people I can get arrested, but they can’t get arrested for harassing me and my team,” she says.
The demonstrations may be legal, but they’re still “reprehensible,” according to Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine. “Restaurants have the legal right to screen for vaccination,” he says. “I want to say how important it is that those options remain for the city... It would be a blow to lose this segment of the restaurant community.”
The Manhattan Borough President echoed the NYC Hospitality Alliance’s guidance for responding to harassment, and Levine tells Eater that he considered putting out a list of restaurants checking for proof of vaccination as a way of showing solidarity. In the end, he decided against it. “I’m a little worried that they may become targets,” he says.
Without clear support from local officials, restaurant and bar owners say they’ve been forced to once again take matters into their own hands. Freihon says she spent around $1,500 on bouncers at the Orchard Townhouse in the days following the protest, while Cruz says he’s debriefing employees in Brooklyn on what to do in the event of a protest at one of the restaurants. “I have to alert my staff,” he says. “It’s on me.”
NYC was one of the first major cities in the U.S. to put a vaccine mandate in place when former mayor Bill de Blasio enacted the requirement last August as part of an effort to boost vaccination rates and make indoor dining safer for the public. Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and other cities initially followed suit, but rolled back their vaccine mandates ahead of NYC due to a downturn in coronavirus cases. Restaurateurs in those areas have had to make similar calls about whether or not to keep their requirements in place.
Update: March 23, 2021, 1:11 p.m.: After this article was published, the Orchard Townhouse stopped requiring customers to show proof-of-vaccination as a result of ongoing harassment, according to owner Natalie Freihon.