It seems to be a typical pandemic Saturday morning at Lucia Ristorante in Boston’s North End.
Impressively dressed guests are scattered around the small dining room. Servers talk to customers and bring food to the tables from the kitchen in the background.
But in front of the restaurant it’s different.
Before ordering, guests will be asked to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Don’t have at least one dose? Unfortunately that means no pasta or wine for you.
The process is all part of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s new “B Together” initiative. Beginning Saturday, guests wishing to visit restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues in the city must show at least one shot. By February, people aged 12 and over must be fully vaccinated and prove this digitally or with their paper card.
The hope is that the new rules will protect people and also encourage the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, Wu said at a news conference on Saturday.
“I keep hearing from our healthcare partners and within our healthcare institutions that the ongoing strain on our healthcare system as a whole is still being driven by gaps in vaccination coverage,” Wu said. “Our policy is intended to be strong support for our healthcare system and residents as a whole. We know this works in the city of Boston.”
But while many restaurants are on board to ensure the safety of staff and guests, they also told WBUR the mandate puts even more strain on an already exhausted industry.
Philip Frattaroli, whose family runs Lucia Ristorante, said while customers were ready to show their vaccination cards on Saturday morning, the restaurant received a backlash on its social media mandate.
“As restaurant owners, we want this to be over, so we want to take steps to make people feel safe in the restaurant, and that’s definitely it,” Frattaroli said. “But ultimately when [the city] told us to go to 25% capacity, it wasn’t up to us. We made it easy. When we couldn’t have people in the restaurant, it wasn’t up to us. We made it easy. And that’s not up to us either.”
“I hope people understand, if they have a problem with their elected government, it’s not the restaurant’s fault,” he added.
Nancy Caswell, executive director of advocacy group Massachusetts Restaurants United, said the policy requires restaurant staff to act as public health gatekeepers.
“Restaurant owners are savvy, but neither are we in the business of medical records…or who we talk to [patrons] why they refuse vaccinations for religious reasons. We tend not to be as personal with our guests,” Caswell said. “Our business is to be hospitable. We have always been trained to serve the people.”
Caswell, who also owns Oak and Rowan in the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston, said the MRU wants to continue discussions with Wu’s government about mandatory vaccinations while companies figure out how to implement them.
“I foresee some conflicts. I haven’t really thought about how to deal with it yet. I think, like we would do with anything else, if you’re underage, you’re not allowed to drink. We have to say no. If you don’t have your vaccination, we can’t place you.”
Jen Ziskin, co-owner and wine director of Brookline restaurants La Morra and Punch Bowl
Restaurants are willing to do whatever it takes to stay afloat right now, Caswell said — especially as the Omicron surge is leaving them with empty tables and canceled reservations.
“In the last three weeks, people have reported a 50 to 60% drop in sales [are] don’t report earnings,” Caswell said. “A lot of people felt like the beginning of January felt like March 16, 2020.”
She said it’s difficult for restaurants to resume playing such an active role in the public health response to the pandemic — something owners and employees never came to the industry to do.
“But I think the scariest thing would be to sit empty, like we’ve sat empty again [over] in the last couple of weeks,” Caswell said. “And I think the only hope we have is that this is just the next phase of what we need to do to get to some sense of normalcy.”
Boston isn’t the only city turning to a vaccination mandate as it strives for that sense of normalcy. Nearby Brookline and Salem followed suit, introducing similar vaccination rules for indoor venues on Saturday.
Jen Ziskin, co-owner and wine director of Brookline restaurants La Morra and Punch Bowl, said Saturday afternoon that fortunately all previous visitors had proof of vaccination. But she expected unvaccinated guests to show up at some point.
“I foresee some conflicts,” Ziskin said. “I haven’t really thought about how to deal with it yet. I think like we would do with anything else, if you’re underage you can’t drink. We have to say no. If you don’t have your vaccination, we can’t seat you.”
Ziskin said it’s always a challenge to be put in a confrontational position with customers, especially in the hospitality industry. But it was a sadly common scenario during the pandemic.
“We’re so used to saying yes and ‘the customer is always right’. And suddenly now we have to train – or retrain – to be like, ‘No, oh, you don’t have a mask, you can’t come in,'” Ziskin said. “At least with a mask, while we can’t give them a quick chance, we can give them a mask.”
Staff will either check vaccination status once people are seated or at the door if there’s a host, Ziskin said.
At Cobble, also in Brookline, diners’ vaccination status is verified either through the restaurant’s online reservation system or by phone call or email. Co-owner Rachel Trudel said the small space and limited reservations mean checking vaccination status is relatively easy.
“I’m reaching out to each and every one of our guests to confirm their reservation,” Trudel said. “And in that process, it’s really super easy to do contact tracing, but it’s also really super easy to ask for proof of vaccination. So we don’t have anyone walking in by accident. We don’t have to turn people away at the door. Everyone has a very personal forewarning of what’s going on.”
Trudel and co-owner Emily Vena opened Cobble in Fall 2020. It’s just the two of you, with Emily as cook and waitress. Trudel said she’s heard people feel comfortable at the restaurant because it’s smaller and understaffed, and she believes making vaccinations compulsory will only make people more relaxed as they head out.
“People who want to eat out will eat out,” Trudel said. “I think people who are on the fence will feel more comfortable. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a good thing for business and I think it’s just a good thing for people to maybe feel some level of security.”