What Restaurant Owners Are Saying About Indoor Dining & Vaccine Mandates

Sep 9, 2021

There are hints of a chill in the air, kids are heading back to school, and the smell of pumpkin spice is in the air -- summer is officially coming to a close.

With cooler weather also comes the prospect of more indoor activities, including of course indoor dining. As the delta variant continues to drive up COVID cases and hospitalizations across the US, restaurant owners are left wondering how to keep their diners and employees safe while also keeping their businesses afloat.

An increasing number of local governments have rolled out vaccine mandates for indoor dining, or are considering reinstating some of the restrictions that crippled the restaurant industry in 2020. Add in the current hospitality labor shortage, and restaurateurs have a lot to say about how new mandates could potentially affect their volume, employees, and hiring needs.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s mid-year report, 6 in 10 adults have changed their restaurant use due to the delta variant. Requiring guests to be vaccinated and masked could help draw guests back in. As Le Bernadin chef Eric Ripert said to CNBC, his restaurant’s vaccination policy has made customers feel relieved and safe, rather than alienating them.

City Winery, a national bar and restaurant chain that offers live music by prominent artists at its venues, already had a vaccine requirement in place for its New York City location. But after conducting an email survey with its customers throughout the country, and seeing that more than 75% of customers who responded to the survey supported the vaccine requirement, it decided to extend the requirement at all its establishments. Those who are not vaccinated will be allowed entry with proof of a negative Covid test.

This of course brings up an additional challenge - checking for proof of vaccination is something restaurant owners will need to address. As Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol pointed out, “not all restaurants have that person, a hostess or someone that greets people at the door. So, we'll have to figure out who that position would go to.” A potentially daunting task in the face of a labor shortage.

Like the impact on customers, a vaccine mandate could potentially draw in more applicants and reduce absences due to COVID exposure, or cause employees who don’t want to be vaccinated to leave. Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, acknowledges that on one hand, “some workers will feel more comfortable knowing that everyone is vaccinated,” On the other hand, “there are some workers that do not want to be vaccinated that are going to have to do so or lose their job.”

As with many of the swiftly moving changes that have impacted restaurants over the last 18 months, technology partners have stepped up to try to streamline restaurants’ communication with their guests. OpenTable has rolled out a feature that allows restaurants to display their Covid inoculation requirements to customers. Most listing sites now include information on outdoor dining options, and solutions like Marqii help operators update their hours, mandate, contact, and online order information in real time to keep up with last-minute changes.

As pointed out by Forbes last week, “if we’ve learned anything throughout the past 18 months, it’s that the restaurant industry is nimble–perhaps nimbler than anyone predicted in February 2020. And the industry is in-arguably stronger and wiser now because of what it’s been through.” Not all operators may agree on how to approach a vaccine or mask mandate for indoor dining, but it’s clear our industry is able to adapt to whatever comes our way this winter.