Pho Banh Mi & Grill in Fairfax was one of the very first restaurants in the region to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining. In the weeks since the policy was featured in the Washington Post, owner Francis Do has seen some uptick in business among seniors eager to support his restaurant and even received a $40 check all the way from Denver. But he’s also dealt with people leaving him fake negative reviews, cursing at him, and telling him he doesn’t know “what freedom means.”
While the response has been more positive than negative, Do has turned away 58 customers who didn’t have vaccination cards in recent weeks. An additional 20 or so couldn’t be seated indoors because they didn’t bring their cards, or photos of their vaccine records, with them. (Do allows cardless customers to sit on the patio outdoors.)
“I had three people open the door, screaming inside, ‘You’re going to be out of business! You are Hitler!’ Then they walk away,” Do says. Some potential customers have even tried to pass off what Do suspects were fake vaccine cards, because they covered up the names and wouldn’t show ID.
Regardless, Do feels he’s doing the right—and necessary—thing. “In the short term, I will lose customers. In the long term, I will gain. I am not worried anymore how much I lose.”
In the past week, more than a couple dozen other DC-area restaurants and bars have also begun to require proof of vaccination as concern about the Delta variant grows. (Chef José Andrés and restaurateur Danny Meyer among the biggest names to join the ranks.) And while many of those businesses have dealt with online trolls and the occasional pissed-off customer, the public response has been generally positive and nonchalant.
The Pug on H Street Northeast began test-driving the new policy last Friday with no issues. But things started to turn a little sour when it officially rolled out the new rules on Saturday.
“A couple came in. She had her card. He didn’t. And I could tell from her expression, this surprised and shocked look like, ‘Are you saying you’re not vaccinated?,'” bartender Chaz Powers recalls of what may have been a first date. He wasn’t the only one caught cardless that night either. Asked for their vax records, several people just stared like deer caught in headlights then turn around and left without a word.
“I believe a bunch of people were outed. And there were more than I thought,” Powers says. “It’s like that horror movie They Walk Among Us. How many people are out there? These were not low-down characters or anything. These were your 25- to 35 year-old hipster metropolitan people who you would think have the sensibility and awareness to have that card.”
Things got more heated when one guy with his mask pulled down sat at the bar without a vaccine card. “This guy got totally belligerent to the point where his friends were yelling at him to leave me alone,” Powers says. “He was like, ‘Are you forcing me to get a vaccination?’ I said, ‘If you want to come into this bar and drink, yes, I’m forcing you to get a vaccination, if that’s the way you want to look at it. But it’s for your own good as well as everyone else’s.'”
Powers ultimately diffused the situation by offering the guy a different kind of shot—Irish whiskey—as an incentive to leave.
But even less contentious interactions slowed down service. Because the Pug doesn’t have door security, Powers was simply asking people for their vax cards along with their IDs when they sat down at the bar. “It makes it difficult to bartend and be the vaccination police at the same time,” he says. He’d like to see the government create a more secure, easier-to-verify vaccine passport.
Things went more smoothly over at 2Amys. The popular pizza restaurant only requires vaccination for indoor seating, while the unvaccinated—including children who aren’t eligible for the shot—are restricted to the outdoor patio.
“We’ve been spending almost a year and a half just trying to keep my staff safe… Why start being stupid now? Why take any unnecessary risks?,” says 2Amys owner Peter Pastan. “We have a lot of customers that are grateful that we’re doing it.”
The only backlash he’s seen so far includes a snarky Google review, a couple nasty Instagram comments, and one customer who hung up on him. A handful of patrons were whiny about showing their cards even though they had them on hand.
The ask has been even less of an issue at Georgetown fine-dining restaurant Reverie. Chef/owner Johnny Spero credits the small dining room, where reservations are often made weeks in advance, for making the vaccine requirement easier to enforce. (The restaurant will also accept a negative Covid test from the past 72 hours, but so far no one has gone that route.)
“I think most of the guests that come in here are hoping that’s the kind of place we are,” Spero says. “I can’t imagine a beer garden that has to enforce that, where you’re dealing with a lot more people.”
One potential out-of-town diner emailed to say he was planning to get the vaccine but that he might not get it before his travels to DC. The guy asked Spero if the restaurant would forgo its policy because he was traveling. “I said, ‘Well, no, that’s the whole purpose of this,” Spero says. “That’s our policy and there’s really no wiggle room around it.” Then the would-be guest tried to say it was too cost prohibitive for him to get a Covid test. Spero offered his personal cell phone to explain where he could get a test for free. Ultimately, the reservation fell through.
“He didn’t get mad about it at all. He was just like, “OK, I understand, maybe next time when the world’s in a better place,” Spero says.
After just one weekend with the new policy, restaurateurs say it’s hard to definitively say how, if it all, it’s affecting business. August is already is a slow month and sales have been down generally as people grow more nervous about Delta.
“I spent 30 years trying to figure out why it’s busy one day and why it’s slow one day. Maybe it’s the weather? Or maybe there’s a football game? I have no fucking idea,” Pastan of 2Amys says.
Restaurateurs requiring proof of vaccination would like to see local jurisdictions follow the lead of New York City and mandate it for all indoor dining. While Mayor Muriel Bowser announced yesterday that DC government employees must soon all be vaccinated, she’s hinted that she’s not as likely to make the same requirement for restaurants, gyms, and other privately owned indoor venues.
“Obviously we’re already going to do it no matter what,” Spero says. “But just like the mask stuff, it’s harder for our staff to enforce something that’s not mandated by the government.”