The foodservice industry has dealt with blow after blow since the pandemic began and there is a new challenge that could become more widespread. Mandates requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants have gone into effect in cities like New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Los Angeles with the L.A. mandate being the most recent. These requirements could come to other cities in the future; however, it is difficult to say what form they would take considering the cities currently affected have vastly different policies. These new rules present an unprecedented challenge for restaurants at a pivotal moment when they are on the path to recovery. Will these mandates be coming to a city near you?

Many restaurants currently in operation had to temporarily close last year or require face coverings due to local provisions and for a time it appeared that those issues were behind us, yet vaccine mandates have brought them back to the forefront. The idea behind customer vaccine mandates was to keep both customers and employees safe; however, the inconsistent implementation and lack of local support has stirred controversy. Employees that used to be concerned about face coverings now have to act as bouncers that check vaccination records or bar people from entry. This new task is usually given to an existing employee and puts a strain on a workforce that is already shorthanded. Hiring a third party or a new employee to do the job is hardly an option considering the labor market and dearth of available funds for restaurateurs. The cities that have implemented these mandates have placed the responsibility and hardship of enforcing the rules on each individual business. To many owners this feels unfair and is made worse when city workers drop by to check up on enforcement and issue fines for non-compliance. In-N-Out recently made headlines when they were forced to close the dining room of their only San Francisco location due to their refusal to comply with the local mandate. The chain has publicly said that they will refuse to deny any customer entry based on vaccination status and they will have to make more difficult decisions soon since several of their locations fall within the new L.A. mandate. The In-N-Out in San Francisco continues to operate as a carry out and drive-thru only location in which no checking of vaccination is required. Returning to an entirely off-premise model is an avenue some restaurants have taken to avoid the headache entirely. This change was easy for a fast food chain like this one; however, it will be a more difficult decision for others who make a significant chunk of revenue from dining rooms.

The proof of vaccination mandate has forced customers and restaurants to come up with solutions themselves. Thankfully, the cities in which these mandates have been put in place have relatively high vaccination rates, yet there is still apprehension. Customers that have not been vaccinated or do not feel comfortable showing vaccine records could be alienated and it has again fallen on restaurants to fill those gaps. Off-premise sales are still allowed in all cities and outdoor dining does not require proof. While outdoor seating has provided an outlet for some, it is not available at every restaurant and incoming cold weather will make this option less viable. The option for an individual to enter the restaurant to order take out is an alternative, although it also presents additional problems. Some restaurants check vaccination status at the door and others check it at the cashier counter with no uniform standard to go by. The rules that each restaurant has to follow now vary by state and this has caused significant problems for operators with multiple locations. Consumers could be aggravated by this inconsistency and although most customers are aware of the mandates they could still cause a confrontation with employees. Heated exchanges are dangerous for all involved and bad for business. Restaurants can call authorities, yet with no additional measures put in place by cities, restaurants are on their own. Even if a restaurant avoids an angry customer they still face the potential to lose business and revenue. Customers who order out tend to spend less than customers dining in and every closed dining room and empty table is a loss restaurants can’t absorb.

Vaccines have helped and have led to many states reopening and allowing businesses to resume close to normal operations. However, proof of vaccination mandates has placed additional restrictions on the restaurant industry without any additional aid to relive the weight of those new burdens. Companies are already dealing with a reduced workforce and an unprecedented supply chain crisis. Asking minimum wage employees to scrutinize the vaccination records of customers or face fines during this pivotal stage of recovery may be a bridge too far for some. These mandates may be here for the short term or for the remainder of the pandemic, nevertheless businesses will find a way to survive and adapt like they have since the beginning.