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Dispatches from a Pandemic: Meet the vaccine bouncers: ‘If our options are a complete lockdown or asking people to flash their card — I prefer the flashing of the card’

What’s it like to ask customers if they’re vaccinated against COVID-19? Sometimes awkward, always necessary and typically without tension, say some business owners who’ve made the decision do it every day.

In Phoenix, some Oven + Vine customers already know the drill: they come to the bar window with their COVID-19 vaccination cards in a Ziploc bag, ready for a look.
Others need a moment to find a picture of the card on their smartphone, which they need to pair with a photo ID.

On the other side of the counter is Michelle Bethge, who’s become more confident asking for the proof before customers are allowed to dine inside her 1,800-square foot restaurant and wine bar. Everyone, with or without proof of vaccination, is welcome to the outdoor patio.

The ask is a skill Bethge and her staff have been building during the past four weeks, in spite of — or maybe bolstered by — a protest from an anti-mask, anti-vaccine contingent and a stream of nasty emails and phone calls.


‘I’m not here to make sure everybody is vaccinated. I’m here to make sure people are as safe as they possibly can be.’


— Michelle Bethge, owner of Oven + Vine in Phoenix, Ariz.

“Now we’ve got some fuel behind us. We’ve got people who are saying they are excited about it. The fuel of these people who can’t just bully us, we are going to stick by what we decided,” said Bethge.

“I’m not here to make sure everybody is vaccinated. I’m here to make sure people are as safe as they possibly can be,” she said of the venue she runs and co-owns with her husband.

Arizona reported 3,225 new COVID-19 cases Friday and a nearly 10% positive rate on tests, according to the state’s Department of Health Services.

Americans are still divided on vaccinations, mostly along political lines. “Partisanship also plays a major role with more than half (58%) of the ‘definitely not’ group identifying as Republican or Republican-leaning,” a Kaiser Family Foundation report concluded.

Debi Cohn hung this sign in the front of her bar, Asiento. Effective Aug. 20, the city of San Francisco is requiring proof of vaccination for indoor restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues. Photo courtesy: Debi Cohn

Still, a quarter of unvaccinated adults say they are likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year, the KFF survey found. This includes nearly half (45%) of people who consider themselves in the “wait and see” group of unvaccinated Americans.

As of Monday, 61.7% of the U.S. over the age of 18 are fully vaccinated, and 72% have at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In San Francisco, Debi Cohn has been asking patrons at her bar, Asiento, for proof weeks before city officials said Thursday that customers would need it to frequent any of the city’s indoor restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues.


‘It’s tricky to put up a barrier to someone just breezing in. We were about giving people drinks and food, and spreading joy.’


— Debi Cohn, owner/operator at Asiento in San Francisco

San Francisco’s rules take effect Aug. 20, four days after New York City’s similar requirement, which requires proof of one shot. Los Angeles officials are eyeing similar rules too.

For Cohn, all that practice has made the interaction easier, slightly. Now she knows pandemic-era life hacks like how to teach people the way they can quickly access their vaccination record on a California health department website.

“It’s tricky to put up a barrier to someone just breezing in,” she said, adding at another point, “We were about giving people drinks and food, and spreading joy. Now it’s rules, all rules.”

“When it becomes more normal and people have their ID and vaccine card ready to go, it will be easier,” she said.

Asiento owner, Debi Cohn, said it’s taken some getting used to asking people for proof of their COVID-19 vaccination status. Photo courtesy: Debi Cohn

Breakthrough infection

Cohn’s tipping point was her own “breakthrough” COVID-19 infection despite her vaccination. The rule isn’t meant to judge people, she said. “I want my interior bar space to safe and I don’t want to get anyone seriously sick.”

Like Bethge’s place, everyone can be seated at Asiento’s outdoor patio, regardless of what proof they do or don’t have.

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a pressing matter of public health, especially as the delta variant rages. But getting the shot is a deeply personal decision too.

As more cities implement proof of vaccination ordinances, and some employers resort to vaccination mandates, more people like Bethge and Cohn will have to figure out how to pose the delicate query.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rashad Carter has a couple “lines” he’s rehearsing when the time comes for him to seek proof from a tough customer.

The area manager for Sushi 85, Good Enough to Eat and Harvest Kitchen said he’ll say something like, “I understand your frustration. I, too, am frustrated with this solution. When I consider the list of solutions, this one emerges as one of the better ones.”

For Carter, that’s not just lip service. “If our options are a complete lockdown or asking people to flash their card — I prefer the flashing of the card. I prefer to keep the ball rolling.”

Carter says many of his colleagues in the business are nervous about the requirement and bracing to “incur a lot of drama.” Carter doesn’t think it will be that way because many people have grown accustomed — at least in New York City — to other pandemic-related rules about masks, seating and social distancing.

Carter’s occasionally had customers gripe at him on these types of rules, but that’s the exception. It’s better the rules are coming now, ahead of the fall and the cold weather that will push diners indoors, he noted.

‘If our options are a complete lockdown or asking people to flash their card, I prefer the flashing of the card. I prefer to keep the ball rolling,’ said Rashad Carter.

Photo c/o: Rashad Carter

‘Don’t get mad’

Like Carter, Robert C. Smith, the president and CEO of Nightclub Security Consultants, doesn’t think proliferating proof of vaccination rules will tee up more tension at bar and restaurant doors.

That’s because many customers understand and will go along with the ground rules for a re-opening world, said Smith.

Smith’s company trains bouncers and restaurant staff on skills, including the ways to keep a cool head when customers get heated (or way too drunk).


‘Don’t overthink it. Don’t get mad. Get you manager involved, and if you need to, involve the authorities.’


— Robert C. Smith, the president and CEO of Nightclub Security Consultants, on dealing with problem patrons

He’s incorporated training on rules like mask requirements and proof of vaccination, but Smith said the same approach applies when a customer shows up without an ID or stumbling drunk.

“Don’t overthink it. Don’t get mad. Get you manager involved, and if you need to, involve the authorities,” he said, adding at another point, “You have right for a private business to refuse services for whatever reasons.”

Like Bethge and Cohn, other restaurants have been establishing proof of vaccination rules on their own. They include eateries in the portfolio of prominent restaurateur Danny Meyer and members of the SF Bar Owner Alliance (where Cohn is a member).

Most of the time when people without proof are referred to Cohn’s patio, there’s no problem. In the rare altercation over the question, would-be customers vent they’re the victims of discrimination. Cohn said she tells them she respects their right to choose, but that they need to respect her business’s right to make a safety decision.

‘All kinds of crazy stuff’

Like Cohn, Bethge’s actually encountered little face-to-face nastiness. Once, several people saw the sign and quietly walked away.

There’s one exception.

After a local news station’s story about the Oven + Vine rule, anti-vaccine detractors filled her phone and inbox with all sorts of messages. “People just spewing anything,” calling her a “communist, fascist, Nazi. They are coming for us, we hope we get ours, just all kinds of crazy stuff,” Bethge recalls.

It culminated in a protest one day last month, where Bethge remembers them chanting “freedom.”


Michelle Bethge has a friend come in every day to screen out the nasty emails and voicemails from the legitimate customer inquiries.

The nasty phone calls and emails still come, and a friend comes every day to screen them out from the legitimate customer orders and questions. This way, Bethge doesn’t have to deal with it.

“They don’t have to see me face to face to call me names,” she said.

What Bethge daily encounters in person is something different: customer gratitude for the rule.

Like one woman telling Bethge she was undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer, and Oven + Vine was the first meal she and her husband had inside a restaurant during the pandemic.

Weeks ago, a customer said he and his wife were vaccinated, but they would prefer to sit outside.

When Bethge brought their meal, he thanked her for the policy and said he worked in a local intensive care unit.

“I’m the last person they see before we tube them and they die,” she recalled him saying. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and he said it’s tough, it’s horrible and he wished more people would get vaccinated and take the virus seriously.”

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