New indoor vaccine requirement presents few challenges for DC businesses in first week

DC employees say checking proof of vaccination has been mostly painless, though some still have concerns

New indoor vaccine requirement presents few challenges for DC businesses in first week

It’s been mostly smooth sailing for businesses across D.C. this month as they’ve worked to implement the district’s new vaccination requirement for indoor gathering places.

Patrons at nearly all businesses are required to show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus or face being denied entry, under a new regulation put in place by Mayor Muriel Bowser that went into effect on Jan. 15. 

The mandate applies to potentially crowded places including restaurants, bars, clubs, gyms, convention centers and entertainment venues like concert halls, movie theaters and sports arenas. Exemptions include retail stores, grocery stores and places of worship.

“If we think about the community, it is safe and good for everyone,” Robert Huanay, a manager at Alero, a Mexican restaurant on U Street, said of the mandate. “We’re glad to do this.”

Although some businesses have had their own vaccination requirements in place since earlier in the pandemic, the weight of a city mandate backing them up has made enforcement easier, some employees said. 

At Orangetheory Fitness in Tenleytown, assistant manager and American University senior Jamaal Beazer said the mandate has been a boon for business.

“It’s really good to know that the person next to you is vaccinated, and in most cases even boosted at this point,” Beazer said. The mandate, he added, “has helped ease the ‘COVID scaries’ for people who are on the fence about getting back in action at the gym.”

William Clark, a manager at The Fireplace bar near Dupont Circle, said enforcing the mandate has been “kind of a hassle, but it's not that hard when you always check for IDs anyway.”

“You're just adding another level on to the approach,” said Clark, who added that he hopes vaccination requirements across D.C., Maryland and Virginia will soon resemble one another to prevent confusion for customers. 

The district’s mandate is the latest in a string of similar regulations in major cities across the country, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco, in response to the delta and now omicron waves of the virus. The Montgomery County Council, in Maryland, was expected to vote on their own nearly identical mandate this week but decided to postpone the vote over concerns that the mandate could harm businesses.

The regulation also comes amid continued pushback to vaccine mandates from some conservative groups. 

On Sunday, a few thousand protesters gathered on the National Mall to denounce the mandates — and the science of vaccines generally — as being a liberal plot to control Americans and take away freedoms. The rally included speeches by prominent anti-vaccine activists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and some speakers compared vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany.

Only one restaurant, The Big Board on H Street, was cited last week for failing to check vaccination status and for allowing staff to work unmasked. The restaurant suggested on Twitter that it would not start complying, but a legal challenge to the mandate is likely to fail because all businesses in the city must follow city laws. Businesses that don’t comply after warnings and fines risk having their liquor license revoked, or even being shut down completely.

At bars and restaurants where the mandate is enforced, some customers have continued to cause problems for staff tasked with asking to see proof of vaccination. 

“People will get really mad that we’re checking vaccine cards,” said Kyra Thordsen, an AU sophomore who works as a waiter and bartender at Bistrot Lepic & Wine Bar, a French restaurant in Georgetown. “Sometimes they’ll just walk out the door,” she said. “It’s for the safety of everyone, so it’s a little weird.”

With restaurant employees already strained by the high-exposure nature of their jobs and supply chain shortages, asking each customer to show their vaccine card is yet another task on the long list of steps they’ve been taking to keep business going throughout the pandemic. 

“I would be dishonest if I said it is not burdensome,” Kathy Hollinger, the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said of the mandate at a press conference the day before it took effect. 

But, for the most part, businesses are taking it in stride. 

“Even if it can in some ways damage business for the first period of time, it’s good for everyone,” Huanay said. “If everyone gets vaccinated and everybody gets the message, it's going to be good for business, for clients, for regular customers, for employees. It’s good for everyone.” 

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