LISTEN LIVE: Radio Boston

Advertisement

 

Restaurants in Boston and beyond navigate new proof-of-vaccination requirements to dine in

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu held a press conference in City Hall on Dec. 20, 2021, to discuss the city's response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. She announced a vaccine mandate to enter businesses in Boston. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu held a press conference in City Hall on Dec. 20, 2021, to discuss the city's response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. She announced a vaccine mandate to enter businesses in Boston. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It seems like a typical pandemic Saturday morning at Lucia Ristorante in Boston's North End.

Diners, dressed to impress, are peppered around the small dining room. Servers talk to customers and bring food to tables from the kitchen in the back.

But at the front of the restaurant, it's different.

Before ordering, diners are asked to show they're vaccinated against COVID-19. Don't have at least one dose? Sadly, that means no pasta or wine for you.

The process is all part of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's new "B Together" initiative. As of Saturday, patrons looking to visit restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues in the city are required to show proof of at least one shot. By February, those 12 years old and up will need be fully vaccinated, and prove it digitally or with their paper card.

The hope is the new rules will keep people safe and also encourage the unvaccinated to get their shots, Wu said at a Saturday press conference.

"I continue to hear from our partners in health care and in our health institutions that the ongoing strain on our health care system overall is still being driven by gaps in vaccination rates," Wu said. "Our policy is meant to be a strong support for our health care system and for residents at large. We know that this works in the city of Boston."

But while many restaurants are on board with keeping staff and patrons safe, they also told WBUR the mandate puts even more stress on an already-exhausted industry.

Philip Frattaroli, whose family runs Lucia Ristorante, said while customers were ready to flash their vaccine cards Saturday morning, the restaurant received pushback to the mandate on social media.

"As a restaurant owner, we want this to be over, so we want to take steps to help people feel safe in the restaurant, and this is definitely that," Frattaroli said. "But ultimately, when [the city] told us to go to 25% capacity, it wasn't up to us. We just did it. When we couldn't have people inside the restaurant, it wasn't up to us. We just did it. And this isn't up to us either."

"I hope people are understanding if they have an issue with their elected government, then that's not the restaurant's fault," he added.

Nancy Caswell, executive director of the advocacy group Massachusetts Restaurants United, said the policy requires restaurant staff to act as gatekeepers of public health.

"Restaurant owners are savvy, but we're also not in the business of medical records ... or having a conversation with [patrons] about why they're opting out of vaccinations for religious purposes. We tend to not be that personal with our guests," Caswell said. "We are in the business of being hospitable. We've been always trained to be of service to people."

Caswell, who also owns Oak and Rowan in Boston's Fort Point neighborhood, said the MRU wants to continue the conversation with Wu's administration about the vaccine requirement as businesses figure out how to implement it.

"I do foresee having some conflict. I haven't fully thought through how to handle that. I think like we would with anything else, like if you're underage, you can't drink. We have to say no. If you do not have your vaccination, we can't seat you."

Jen Ziskin, co-owner and wine director of the Brookline restaurants La Morra and Punch Bowl

Restaurants are willing to do whatever it takes to stay afloat right now, Caswell said — especially as the omicron surge leaves them with empty tables and cancelled reservations.

"The last three weeks, people are reporting 50 to 60% revenue losses, some [are] reporting no revenue," Caswell said. "A lot of people felt like the beginning of January felt a lot like March 16, 2020."

She said it's difficult for restaurants to once again play such an active role in the public health response to the pandemic — something owners and staff never got into the industry to do.

"But, I think the scariest thing would be to sit empty, like we've been sitting empty again [over] the last couple of weeks," Caswell said. "And I think the only hope we have is that this is just the next phase of what we have to do to get to some sense of normalcy."

Boston isn't the only city turning to a vaccine mandate as it strives for that sense of normalcy. Nearby Brookline and Salem followed suit and implemented similar vaccine rules Saturday for indoor venues.

Jen Ziskin, co-owner and wine director of the Brookline restaurants La Morra and Punch Bowl, said on Saturday afternoon that everyone visiting so far happily showed proof of vaccination. But she was expecting unvaccinated guests would turn out at some point.

Advertisement

 

"I do foresee having some conflict," Ziskin said. "I haven't fully thought through how to handle that. I think like we would with anything else, like if you're underage, you can't drink. We have to say no. If you do not have your vaccination, we can't seat you."

Ziskin said it's always challenging to be put in a confrontational position with customers, especially in the hospitality industry. But it's been an unfortunately common scenario throughout the pandemic.

"We are so used to saying yes and 'the customer is always right.' And all of a sudden we now have to train ourselves — or retrain ourselves — to have to say, 'No, oh, you don't have a mask, you can't come in,' " Ziskin said. "At least with a mask, we can provide them with a mask, whereas we can't give them a quick shot."

Staff are either checking vaccination status once people are seated or at the door if there's a host, Ziskin said.

At Cobble, also in Brookline, guests' vaccination status is either checked through the restaurant's online reservation system or through a phone call or email. Co-owner Rachel Trudel said the small space and limited reservations mean checking vaccination status is relatively straightforward.

"I reach out to every single one of our guests to confirm their reservation," Trudel said. "And in that process, it makes it really super easy to do contact tracing, but also really super easy to ask for the proof of vaccination. So we don't have anyone coming in randomly. We don't have to turn people away at the door. Everyone has a very personalized heads up about what's going on."

Trudel and co-owner Emily Vena opened Cobble in the fall of 2020. It's just the two of them, with Emily as chef and server. Trudel said she's heard people feel comfortable in the restaurant because it's smaller, with minimal staff, and she thinks requiring vaccination will only make people more at ease with venturing out.

"The people who want to dine out are going to dine out," Trudel said. "I think the people who are on the fence are going to be more comfortable. And I think that's a good thing. I think that's a good thing for business and I think it's just a good thing for people to maybe feel some level of reassurance."

Related:

Amanda Beland Twitter Producer/Director
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.

More…

Advertisement

 

Advertisement

 
Play
Listen Live
/00:00
Close