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COVID-19 vaccine mandate starts Monday, but how will Chicago restaurants enforce it? Here’s what to know.

Sunday, January 02, 2022
Chicago Tribune
by Josh Noel

Chicago’s vaccine mandate arrives Monday as COVID-19 cases skyrocket yet again, near and far.

With a rapidly shifting virus, it’s hard to say whether requiring proof of vaccination at bars and restaurants — plus gyms, stadiums and other entertainment and recreation venues where food and drinks are served — will make a meaningful difference in curtailing the spread of the omicron variant, which sent new cases soaring to record highs in a matter of weeks.


Do most restaurant owners prefer a vaccine mandate to another industrywide shutdown or reduced capacities? Undoubtedly.

“Indoor closures were super painful,” said Dan Raskin, fourth-generation owner of Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen. “It wasn’t good for anybody. Our economy needs people to be going out and doing life.”

Dan Raskin, center, owner of Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen talks with brothers Ron, left, and David Harris on Dec. 30, 2021, in Chicago. The Harris brothers have been coming to the deli since 1955.
Dan Raskin, center, owner of Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen talks with brothers Ron, left, and David Harris on Dec. 30, 2021, in Chicago. The Harris brothers have been coming to the deli since 1955. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

But a degree of dread over carrying out the mandate is clearly on the minds of several restaurateurs who spoke with the Tribune in the days leading up to its enforcement.

Raskin said he understands why city officials are instituting the mandate, but he’s not comfortable with his staff asking customers for what he considers to be private health information. He’s worried checking vaccine cards will slow down business, leading to frustrated customers. And, he said, the mechanics will be tricky to navigate, including the cost of extra labor, as he’s already struggling to hire enough workers.

Raskin also said, though, that he will not hesitate to implement the policy along with the thousands of other bars and restaurants doing the same throughout the city and Cook County suburbs.

“I’ve had customers say, ‘Why don’t you defy them and do what you want to do?’ ” Raskin said. “Well, that’s not what I do. I’m a law-abiding business owner.”

How will restaurants and bars navigate the mandate? What can customers expect? And what lessons can be gleaned from other places with similar mandates?

Here’s what you need to know.

What will be required?

Those looking to dine or drink inside restaurants and bars must provide proof of vaccination for anyone 5 years or older, plus — and this is key — photo identification for anyone 16 and older with a name matching the name on the proof of vaccination. Restaurant workers are able to show a negative test result in lieu of proof of vaccination, but customers cannot.

Proof of vaccination is not required to pick up takeout orders or to sit outside.

The city has pledged to monitor compliance, and restaurants flouting the rule will be subject to fines and closure of one day or potentially longer “for egregious situations,” Miguel Campos, supervisor of business compliance investigations for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, has said.

As to what constitutes proof, the original card will do, of course. So will a photocopy of the card, a clear photo of it on your phone, or the digital SMART Health Card. A full list, along with other details, is on the city’s website.

When defining vaccination, the city and county are following the lead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: two weeks past a second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks past a single shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Proof of a booster shot is not necessary, though some restaurant owners have said they are considering adding such a requirement on their own.


Without a booster requirement, is this an imperfect mandate?

Probably. But with new cases surging — on Thursday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 128,246 new cases of COVID-19 during the previous week — and the city’s positivity rate leaping from 4% to more than 17% during the past month, it will help, officials say.

It’s well established that one or two vaccine shots offer decreased protection over time and do a lesser job protecting against the omicron variant than with a booster. Yet the CDC continues to define being vaccinated as having two shots of Pfizer or Moderna or one of Johnson & Johnson — so that’s how the city is defining it for this mandate.

However, The New York Times reported Wednesday that private companies are increasingly mandating boosters, and that federal officials are beginning to reconsider their definition, too, albeit cautiously.


What should diners expect?

How the mandate is carried out will vary by restaurant, and procedures will almost certainly evolve. But it will boil down to someone asking to see your ID and proof of vaccination — much like being carded at a bar.

The Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria chain, which has more than 20 locations subject to vaccine mandates, was “still working on getting our processes in place” during the middle of last week, spokesperson Mindy Kaplan said.

“I’m sure even after we get the processes in place, we will need to adjust based on real-life experiences as they come up,” Kaplan said. “Like COVID-19 issues throughout the past 21 months, we implement, adjust and adapt as needed.”

Many, if not all Lou’s locations will have a leg up, with hosts stationed ahead of the dining room, which provides a ready way to check vaccination cards.

But a place such as Manny’s will have a harder time adapting to the mandate, Raskin said.

Bhannia Martinez and Carl Schulte eat at Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen for the first time on Dec. 30, 2021, in Chicago.
Bhannia Martinez and Carl Schulte eat at Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen for the first time on Dec. 30, 2021, in Chicago. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

At the legendary South Loop delicatessen, customers grab trays just inside the front door, pick up their food in line and pay at the register before seating themselves. Raskin said he plans to check for vaccination proof at the end of the line, while customers are paying, so anyone without proof can take their food to go.

He also wants to avoid people waiting outside as cards are being checked, and not to have to hire someone to monitor the door.

Then again, he said, the person checking cards could ultimately be positioned elsewhere if it means things move more efficiently.

Be prepared for anything. And be ready for it to change.


Can businesses legally deny seating unvaccinated people?

Yes. Private businesses can deny service to unvaccinated customers — and are required not to allow them to dine indoors by the city’s mandate.

In Chicago, the vaccine mandate has been issued via an order by the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, who is empowered by city law to enact emergency orders that can be enforced by city departments including the police.

Critics of vaccination and mask mandates have suggested laws such as the Civil Rights Act and the Fourth Amendment should allow unvaccinated people entry to businesses. But the Civil Rights Act does not offer protections for medical conditions, and the Fourth Amendment pertains to unreasonable search and seizure by government bodies, not private businesses.

Lawsuits challenging earlier mask or vaccine mandates across the U.S. have largely either been dismissed or are still in progress.


How will restaurants and bars be affected?

In one sense, the mandate puts all bars and restaurants in an unenviable position, thrusting them once again to the forefront of a public health crisis that has turned politically charged. Countless restaurant workers have stories of dealing with hostile customers during the last two years, frequently over mask mandates. This will be yet another mandate they are required to uphold.

But in another sense, things will vary greatly.

Some places are simply better situated for the mandate than others: those with outdoor spaces, strong to-go business and a customer base on board with vaccinations and the mandate will have a leg up.

Michael Roper, owner of Andersonville’s Hopleaf bar and restaurant, said he was planning to issue his own vaccine mandate starting Jan. 1 because he thinks his customers are ready for it and because the industry must “learn to live with COVID-19.”

“We can’t destroy our way of life to protect those who refuse to be vaccinated,” he said. “Once it becomes mandated, people will carry their cards.”

But, Roper said, he wishes there was a stronger technological underpinning to Chicago’s vaccine mandate, such as the Green Pass used in Israel and several European countries, which employs a QR code for verification.

“Having just returned from Europe, I see how well it works,” he said. “It is a lot harder to fake than our cards. Anyone with card stock and a printer can make a fake CDC vaccination card and, with no QR code, we have no way to verify it.”

While Illinois recently added the SMART Health Card — which features a QR code that can be downloaded or shown via a smartphone app — to its Vax Verify system, its use is not widespread or required as part of the vaccine mandate.

Depending on business model, audience and location, some restaurants are likely to see traffic grow. Others could see a decline.

Customers eat lunch at Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen on Dec. 30, 2021, in Chicago.
Customers eat lunch at Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen on Dec. 30, 2021, in Chicago. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

Like Roper, Raskin is hopeful customers will feel more comfortable dining out.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “That’s what I want, is for more people to come in here. But it’s wait and see. Everyone is at the same disadvantage — everyone’s got to do it.”


How has a vaccine mandate gone in other cities?

Returns have been mixed in New York City, which instituted a vaccination mandate in September, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents thousands of bars, restaurants and clubs.

Some restaurants have reported upticks in business due to customers feeling more comfortable going out, Rigie said. Others, especially in neighborhoods with lower rates of vaccination, have struggled. Some have tweaked their approach, closing for indoor dining to focus on delivery and to-go business.

“It’s really been all over the map, and that’s been the challenge,” Rigie said. “Some restaurants, it hasn’t impacted business, and on some days it was even good for business. Others say they’ve lost a significant amount of business.”

But the bottom line, he said, is that all have adapted.

“Restaurants, whether they like it or not, have put systems into place to manage the mandate,” Rigie said. “For some restaurants, it has certainly taken more resources. But it hasn’t posed as many challenges compared to prior mandates, like shutdowns or not being able to stand in a bar.”


What’s the key to making the vaccine mandate painless as possible?


Yes, you are the gravest fear of many restaurant owners and workers.

“My staff is mostly worried about how they’ll be treated by customers,” Raskin said. “Their job is to be nice and friendly and serve the customer, not checking IDs and following government protocols. And it’s become very political, with people voicing their opinions. It adds a whole other dimension of people getting upset about things. They just use it as fuel to fight with you.”

So be kind. Be patient. Have your ID and vaccination card ready when walking in to avoid operations needlessly slowing down. Make peace with the fact that no matter how you feel about the mandate, bars and restaurants are simply following rules that hopefully limit the spread of COVID-19, and failing to follow the rules could lead to fines or closure.

If you want to express your opinion about the vaccine mandate, direct it toward the government officials implementing the policy — not the restaurant workers upholding it.

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