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Philly restaurants should require the vaccine | Craig LaBan

Inquirer critic Craig LaBan explains why restaurants should all require customers (and their employees) to be vaxxed for indoor dining.

Kalaya owner Chutatip "Nok" Suntaranon outside her market at 922 S. Ninth St. Kalaya and other restaurants were among the first to adopt proof of vaccination policies for dining indoors.
Kalaya owner Chutatip "Nok" Suntaranon outside her market at 922 S. Ninth St. Kalaya and other restaurants were among the first to adopt proof of vaccination policies for dining indoors.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

“Commie much?!” “Discrimination!” “This is garbage! Sheep! 🐑🐑🐑!”

These were just a few of the choice responses that poured into my private messages when I shared my support on social media a couple weeks ago for the handful of brave restaurants — Martha, Irwin’s, and Cornerstone Bistro, among others — that first announced they would begin requiring proof of vaccination from patrons for indoor dining. They did so to protect their employees, their customers, and all their strides back to normality since coronavirus restrictions were rescinded in mid-June. But now the angry online commenters were brandishing figurative torches at their door. To no one’s surprise.

“Hope her place folds!” one malicious troll told me, as they barreled down the dark rabbit hole of misinformation that COVID-19 really wasn’t so bad and that it was their freedom that was in danger.

Well, congratulations to all the anti-vaxxers who’ve resisted the protective miracle of science and let this scourge fester long enough for the fiercely contagious delta variant to fuel Philly’s fourth wave! I’m sure they’re just thrilled with the return of a citywide mask mandate, announced Wednesday by Mayor Jim Kenney, effective almost immediately, requiring masks in all indoor spaces. Yet again.

This time, however, it comes with one important caveat. Businesses that can verify all employees and customers are vaccinated can remain mask-free. And for the restaurant community, despite the logistical headaches of verification, inevitable friction, and details of enforcement, the choice should now be clear: Vaccinate your spaces to keep the masks down and preserve the progress we’ve made.

I’ve been consistent in my stance since the beginning, advising against indoor dining before a vaccine was available, then proceeding with hopeful caution now that an effective solution is available to all.

I was admittedly hesitant to get back inside dining rooms after a 15-month hiatus. But I got over that quickly as my research for a new fall dining guide picked up. As I’ve checked back on old survivors and exciting new entries alike, I’ve been astonished and inspired by the amount of pent-up creativity I’ve witnessed on the plate, but also by the warmth of hospitality I’d missed during a year of takeout, from spot-on wine suggestions I’d never have known otherwise to the palpable pride in servers reconnecting with an appreciative public.

» READ MORE: These Philadelphia restaurants require proof of COVID-19 vaccination

Yes, I’ve also detected the stress of staffs trying to cope with being shorthanded. But the comeback spark is real. Our now-bustling dining rooms and outdoor patios are the stages on which we’ve quite literally been able to taste the sweet return to community that restaurants uniquely provide. Never did I imagine, until a few weeks ago, that we might be hurtling backward toward more restrictions because the vaccination effort has stalled. The hovering specter of a worst-case scenario — the potential return of shutdowns — would be heartbreaking after we were seemingly in the clear.

This is no time to waffle. We can no longer wait for reason to take effect. Withhold the privilege of dining inside for the willfully unvaccinated, because businesses are within their rights to do so, and their future depends on it. I highly doubt the impact of a threatened boycott from this vocal minority will measure up to the hell most restaurants just endured over the past year.

I applaud the other restaurateurs who’ve since joined the vax-required effort, including big players like Marc Vetri, the CookNSolo crew behind Zahav, and Nok Suntaranon of Kalaya, whose examples I hope will encourage others to follow.

I’ve spoken to dozens of owners who also desire a fully vaccinated restaurant environment. I also understand why some of these weary operators also hesitate because they fear losing some vax-resistant young staffers without whom they might not be able to continue operating. Or those who worry that a vax-mandate is “too political,” or that enforcing vaccine status at the door is a job fraught with potential conflicts their staff should not suffer.

Restaurants have been thrust onto the front lines of this culture war of rapidly changing health policy, toxic politics and, oh yeah, hospitality, since the beginning of the pandemic. It isn’t fair. As Southgate owner Peter Hwang told my colleague, Jenn Ladd: “I’m really not trying to have a super Karen or some big, burly guy berating a 5-foot-2, young hostess about his freedoms.”

Restaurants shouldn’t have to be the vaccine police, with so little guidance from city government, when there may be better solutions, such as a third-party verification system to shoulder that burden. But saving their industry may depend on restaurateurs’ ability to navigate this situation while the fluid details are being worked out.

The city mandate may also give some fence-sitters the cover to finally take the leap, like the one who told me that “then I wouldn’t have to be the bad guy.”

Of course, the unvaccinated (including children who don’t yet have access to the jab) can still dine safely outdoors, but there’s another option. Restaurants that aren’t up to requiring vaccinations will have to enforce mask-wearing for everyone inside — except when they’re seated, eating and drinking with their mouths open, which, if you know how this airborne virus spreads, isn’t exactly reassuring. Even for those who are vaccinated.

Pretty soon, Philadelphians will be faced with a choice of two kinds of restaurants to patronize. There will be the places where management has taken the difficult stand to protect their vaccinated customers and employees as much as possible and offer a mask-free, natural dining experience indoors. And then there will be the mask-on alternatives where the potential exposure will be more risky.

Feel free to hold this mask while I dine inside, my anti-vax trolls. Because I know which option I’ll choose.