San Francisco starts vaccine checks at restaurants, bars, gyms

Anyone who wants to eat, drink or exercise indoors in San Francisco will be required to show they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, when one of the nation’s most stringent restrictions on unvaccinated people takes effect.

Restaurant and bar owners said they’ve contacted people who reserved tables to remind them of the new rule that begins Friday, and plan to have extra staff at the front door to verify people’s proof of vaccination, making sure it matches their identity cards.

“There’s definitely some anxiety around how it’s all going to work,” said Pete Sittnick, a managing partner of Waterbar and EPIC Steak restaurants on the city’s waterfront.

He anticipates a slowdown in checking in guests, possible pushback from diners who disagree with the requirement and awkward scenarios where someone shows up without proper documentation.

“The good thing is, if somebody doesn’t have their verification of vaccination they can still eat outside. There is an option and we just need to be ready for different scenarios,” Sittnick said.

Mayor London Breed announced the requirement more than a week ago in an attempt to stem rising COVID-19 cases, saying she was worried the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus could disrupt the city’s economic rebound.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows nearly 6 in 10 Americans want vaccination mandates for those attending movies, sports, concerts and other crowded events. They also want mandates for those traveling by airplane and for workers in hospitals, restaurants, stores and government offices.

NYC also checking vaccination status

New York City, was the first in the nation to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for indoor dining, fitness and entertainment, an approach dubbed the “Key to NYC” plan which Mayor Bill de Blasio announced August 4.

Since early August, more than 300,000 more New Yorkers have gotten at least one shot of a vaccine, according to city health data. At least 5.2 million of the city’s 8.8 million residents have gotten at least one shot, with nearly 5 million fully vaccinated.

“We do not want to go back to restrictions,” de Blasio said at a virtual news conference August 4. “The key to our progress is vaccination.”

San Francisco’s mandate goes further than New York City’s, which requires only the first dose of a vaccine for indoor activities, and that of New Orleans, which requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for indoor dining and drinking.

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The new regulation follows a number of tough COVID-19 measures San Francisco imposed since the beginning of the pandemic. The city and its neighboring counties in the Bay Area were the first in the nation to order residents to stay at home in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, following a state order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. More recently, it required all city employees to be vaccinated without the option of testing regularly.

Newsom has also had to tighten the rules after announcing the reopening of California’s economy in June. He has required the state’s health care workers to get vaccinated to keep their jobs and all teachers and state workers to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Support from local businesses

Local business groups have supported the new measure, saying it will protect their employees and customers and keep them from having to limit capacity indoors. Some businesses that had taken it upon themselves to check for proof of vaccination at the door said a citywide policy helps set clear expectations for all customers.

When Vegan Picnic announced in late July it would only allow vaccinated customers, the deli quickly received one-star reviews on Yelp, many from internet trolls who had never eaten there, and threats from callers who viewed the requirement as a violation of their personal rights and privacy, owner Jill Ritchie said.

“The phone was ringing with people yelling at us, and at the same time we had an outpouring of support from people saying ‘Thank you, I feel safe going to your store,'” Ritchie said.

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She said checking people’s vaccination status has been easy, and soon the computer software her business uses for online ordering and payment processing will handle the verification digitally and warn customers of the mandate ahead of time.

Online reservation systems such as OpenTable are also telling diners about the rule when they RSVP, and businesses that cater to the city’s tourism industry have launched a campaign called “Relax, We’re Vaxxed” to get the word out to out-of-town visitors.

City officials said a paper card issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a photo of the CDC card, or a verified digital vaccine record will suffice. Proof of vaccination issued by foreign governments is also acceptable.

Employees trained to identify frauds

Pearce Cleaveland, co-owner of the Temple nightclub, said his security guards have been trained to check all forms of vaccination proof, as well as falsified copies of vaccination cards.

“We’ve had people who get upset at the door when they’re turned away, but in general they’re understanding,” he said. “It’s the tourists who are generally disappointed, when they’re unaware of the requirement and can’t get vaccinated quickly enough.”

Workers have until October 13 to prove they are fully vaccinated and Cleaveland said he expects to meet compliance by then. The mandate does not apply to people ineligible for vaccines, including children under 12.

After a sharp increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the San Francisco Bay Area over the summer, the numbers appear to be leveling off but remain high, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.

He said reinstated restrictions have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus. For example, after Los Angeles County reinstated a mask mandate for indoor businesses, the increase in daily COVID-19 cases slowed significantly over the last few weeks, Chin-Hong said.

“There is no magic bullet, just a combination of a hard stick and soft stick,” he said. “The proof-of-vaccination mandate is a soft stick because you can still eat outdoors, but if you want to hang out with people indoors you better get vaccinated.”