‘Happy but wary’: Restaurant industry holds its breath as NYC lifts key vax mandate

Even before Mayor Eric Adams announced plans to ease pandemic restrictions, there were rumors in the restaurant community that one of New York’s iconic and controversial policies – asking customers to inside proof of vaccination – was about to disappear.

To the surprise of some of his colleagues, Manhattan restaurateur Jeremy Wladis felt conflicted.

“I was one of those people who thought maybe I’d just keep going like this,” he recently recalled, “until everyone felt a little more comfortable.”

Wladis, whose four dining establishments include Good Enough to Eat, had no qualms about complying with Key2NYC, a program that requires the vaccination of all staff and customers inside restaurants, gyms, cultural institutions and places of entertainment. He is a firm believer in vaccination, calling it a “civic duty”.

“I think people want security,” he said.

Next Monday, the city plans to end Key2NYC and end masking in public schools as long as cases remain low. The city, however, plans to keep separate vaccination mandates in place for all private and public sector employees.

Like the decision to remove masks from city schools, the end of an indoor vaccination mandate in some of the busiest social settings represents an important milestone in the pandemic. Rolled out last summer by Mayor Bill de Blasio as one of the toughest mandates in the country, many hailed Key2NYC for giving those inside a layer of protection against the coronavirus while encouraging vaccinations.

But few have looked forward to the return more eagerly than those in the restaurant industry, which epitomizes the city’s vitality and has been among the hardest hit by the virus. The New York City Hospitality Alliance, a restaurant industry advocacy group, estimates that thousands of restaurants in the five boroughs have closed during the pandemic. However, while some business owners say they are excited, others remain cautious about what the future holds, raising the question of whether now is actually the right time.

Public health criticism

Some public health experts opposed the mayor’s decision, calling it premature in the face of a possible omicron push or the emergence of a new variant. Even though New York City is considered highly vaccinated — 77% of all residents aged 5 and over were fully immunized – almost 2 million people left without all their vaccines. Only 56% of the city’s children are fully immunized, and this rate drop to only 35% for young people from 5 to 11 years old. At the other end of the age spectrum, about two-thirds of New Yorkers over 85 — an extremely vulnerable group — are fully vaccinated.

Dr. Jay Varma, de Blasio’s top health adviser, argued that unless they follow the mandate, the city should protect companies from possible lawsuits if they choose to continue to verify vaccination evidence. . He said the city could also encourage the practice by having the health department distribute stickers to establishments that choose to stick with Key2NYC.

“So that way, although the city doesn’t require restaurants, it’s in some ways putting a stamp of approval saying that checking vaccines is both legal and something the city allows you to advertise outside your door,” Varma said. .

Adams called the easing of restrictions an important marker for the city’s recovery. “It’s just a symbol that we’re back,” he said during an interview with CNBC on Monday.

But Varma argued that many New Yorkers have embraced Key2NYC or become accustomed to it.

“There may very well be large swaths of New Yorkers who want all of this taken down,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case, but it would be worth seeing good data to justify why removing it at this time is something that actually represents people’s will as opposed to a decision to improve psychology. of a city.”

City Hall is currently considering the legal ramifications for establishments that may choose to retain the mandate. In the absence of Key2NYC, it is unclear whether a business owner can legally deny service to an unvaccinated person. State Law prohibits denial of service based on religion, marital status, age, disability, gender identity and race, but they may refuse entry to customers for disorderly conduct or behavior unhygienic, such as not wearing a shirt.

Asked about it on Monday, Adams said he doesn’t consider asking for proof of vaccination a violation of civil rights. At the same time, he said, “This is new territory for the world.”

He said the city will look to provide more information in the coming days.

A spokesperson for the mayor declined Thursday to comment on ongoing legal discussions.

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Cecil N. Messick