George MacEwan and Martin Bohannon opened the Cherry Street Tavern in Chattanooga, Tenn. earlier this year. They have each been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years, and knew it would be difficult to open during a pandemic. But their dream location went on sale. And, they thought COVID-19 would mostly be over by now.
Instead, COVID-19 cases have been rising around them — as of Sept. 21, Tennessee has 1.16 million cases, one of the highest numbers in the country. As they watched the COVID-19 cases rise and ICU beds fill up, they tried to decide what to do.
They wanted their business to survive. They wanted their customers to survive. They found themselves in an unimaginable situation, suddenly thrust into a position of weighing public health, their business’ future, and the relief and fun they know their customers found listening to live music.
Last month, they required customers to show a proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entering their music venue. The decision wasn’t one they made lightly — the men thought about it for weeks before establishing the rule last month. They’re one of thousands of small businesses owners across the country making those choices with little or no guidance.
”We want to provide a safe place for people to have fun and enjoy music,” MacEwan said. “There aren’t many places for that right now, and we just want to do everything we can to allow people to feel safe when they go out.”
“We both have a lot of family members in the medical profession,” MacEwan said. “We see what’s going on. Every day, we’re looking at local COVID numbers.” They were also reassured after 13 venues in Nashville required proof the day before Cherry Street made its announcement.
Most restaurant owners are on their own
A handful of cities across the country, including New Orleans, San Francisco and New York City, have mandated restaurants to require customers to prove they’re vaccinated before dining indoors. Everywhere else, restaurant owners must gauge for themselves what rules to set at their own establishment. Some have gone the other way: One restaurant owner in Texas hit the headlines for banning masks.
“It’s really challenging for restaurants to be the arbiter of public policy,” said Erika Polmar, the co-founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group created last year to support restaurant owners and operators that has been a driving advocate for the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund. “They’re trying to keep everybody safe, and it’s easier to have that guidance from public health experts and not have individual restaurants have to make that decision.”
Vaccination rates are linked to economic growth, a June report from San Francisco-based business management system Gusto found. In states where the vaccination rates are higher, small businesses have been able to hire more people, the report, which pulled from Gusto’s data of more than 100,000 small businesses, found. Meanwhile, a majority of U.S. small businesses aren’t requiring employees to present COVID-19 vaccination proof or a negative COVID-19 test, according to the U.S. Census’ Small Business Pulse Survey.
The cities and individual restaurants that have required a vaccination check at the door do so to keep patrons and staff members safe and limit the spread of the virus. But requiring vaccination proof can be high stakes for restaurant owners.
Many vaccine opponents claim that restaurants’ vaccination requirements are “segregation.” Restauranteurs have faced aggressive attacks online for the decision — across the country, owners have told reporters of being called a “nazi” or a “communist” for their policy. Last month, Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene attacked Atlanta restaurant Argosy online for its “no vax, no service” policy. Greene has been banned from Twitter for spreading false COVID-19 vaccine information.
Many restaurants have also experienced “review bombings,” where people who haven’t been to the restaurants are spamming pages with negative reviews and 1-star ratings because of vaccination policies. Popular rating site Yelp is putting Unusual Activity Alerts on a business’ page receiving an influx COVID-19-related comments to remove these reviews, its VP of User Operations, Noorie Malik writes in an Aug. 5 statement.
The trolls hit
The reviewers came for Cherry Street Tavern, MacEwan said. But, the men have rarely interacted, knowing a response would add fuel to the fire. “I think it’s one thing to respond to incidents that have actually happened at a business based on a bad review, but when it’s just somebody online who’s mad at us, I don’t feel like it’s our duty to get into a back and forth with them,” MacEwan said.
Cherry Street Tavern’s regular customers have overall supported their decision, MacEwan said. He’s seen less people walk through the door over the last month, but it’s due to growing caution as case numbers rise, not the vaccination requirement, he said.
Ricky Gomez, the owner of Cuban cocktail bar and restaurant Palomar in Portland, Oregon, has heard his restaurant friends’ experience with the review trolling. It was in his mind as he met with his staff last week about what type of mandate they’d like to set as they move their current outdoor-only operations inside as the weather grows colder. Gomez will require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test in order to sit at its bar.
“I’m hearing those stories, it just sounds like nightmares,” Gomez said. “I thought my year was tough, but hearing some of those, I count my blessings for the market that we’re in and our customers being so supportive with vaccine mandates.”
As it gets colder outside and operations must move indoors, many restaurant owners fear their already dwindling customer counts will continue to go down. For some, another shutdown would mean closing their doors permanently.
Owners push forward, despite the fear
When New Orleans announced its vaccine mandate last month, Arkesha Baquet, owner of Lil Dizzy’s Cafe in the city’s Treme neighborhood, was worried. To her surprise, the first week was pretty much business as usual. But by the second week, sales were cut in half.
“My expectation and understanding was that it would affect business because not everybody’s vaccinated,” she said. “So that’s a given that it was gonna have an impact.”
Now, Lil Dizzy’s is coping with the effects of Hurricane Ida, which closed the cafe’s doors as they waited for power to return and their suppliers to get back up and running. She hopes to reopen Monday Sept. 27th, but fears the dwindling traffic will remain.
A family restaurant changes hands
Baquet took ownership of the Creole restaurant earlier this year with her husband, after the pandemic pushed her father-in-law, the previous owner, to retire. “We just want this family restaurant and legacy to continue, and we need the support and the help of the people to keep it going,” she said.
“It’s hard to pick that momentum back up, but we’re gonna shoot for it.”
In Detroit, where there’s no mandates currently in place, Nya Marshall doesn’t require proof of vaccination to dine in at her American fusion restaurant, IVY Kitchen. She chose to follow Detroit’s local guidelines, and continues to limit capacity in her restaurant and require her 13 employees to wear masks.
Still, she’s been an active supporter of the vaccination in her community — more than 250 people received their shots at her restaurant during clinics she’s hosted this year, she said.
The pandemic hit IVY Kitchen hard — the restaurant closed for six months and Marshall had to lay off her staff of 24, which was devastating, she said. She received one Paycheck Protection Program loan this year and had to dig into her own savings to keep her restaurant running.
“Every single day, every single week, you’re evaluating, can you stay open or should you close? Can you stay open? Should you close?” Marshall said. “The lifeline of your business is on the line every single day.”
Marshall is operating at half capacity — 11 tables instead of the full 21– to keep distancing in the restaurants. Even without a mandate, Marshall has noticed more caution in her customers — there’s been a decline in in-person eaters and more than half of the people who do come into her restaurant wear masks. Her sales are up from last year, she said, but still down 36% from 2019, when she opened the restaurant.
Sales down 65%
“I fear that we’re going to have a resurgence and we’re going to be required to absorb the same protocols as we did last season,” she said “I don’t know that Ivy can survive that again. We barely survived it the first time.”
For Gomez, the pandemic has been back and forth. Palomar had to close twice — once for the pandemic and another because of the wildfires in Oregon. He, too, laid off his staff of 17 last year. Palomar’s sales were down 65% last year, and are still as much as 50% down from pre-pandemic sales.
His staff is now back up to nine. He almost hired more this summer when business picked up, but he’s glad he didn’t because the thought of having to lay off more people is heartbreaking.
Still, he is one of the lucky ones, he said. It’s helped tremendously that he received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and a grant from Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which covered his losses last year, paid his rent and allowed him to keep his employees’ health insurance.
The hospitality industry is already one of small margins, he said. Most people don’t get into it to become rich — it’s the joy of seeing someone light up as they taste your food or they have a good time in your restaurant. Some of that enjoyment has dissipated over the last 18 months.
“As servers and owners have all of a sudden become the mask police or the vaccine card checker, there’s these barriers and the relationship has changed between the consumer and staff,” Gomez said.
“Our goal is to get back there, but it’s hard to get back there right now.”
MacEwan looks forward to the day Cherry Street Tavern’s proof-of-vaccination-required sign will come down. But until cases fall, the sign, and requirement, stays, he said.