Greg Ryken showed up to his favorite lunch spot in San Francisco on Friday with an appetite and his vaccination record in hand.
A manager at Sam’s Grill and Seafood restaurant verified he was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, put him on a list of customers who have met the city’s new requirement for future reference, and walked him to his table.
“Easy,” Ryken said as San Francisco became the first major city in the U.S. to enforce the strictest vaccine mandate for entering restaurants, bars, gyms and large concerts.
Businesses posted signs and added extra staff to begin verifying people’s vaccination and identity cards before allowing them in. Many gyms had already been checking their members’ vaccination status before the health order went into effect.
“We tested systems in place to see how we would do it, we were talking to our customers, getting our staff prepared, and we are so thrilled to have the full-throated support of the leadership of our city so we can confidently walk into this new landscape together,” said Tracey Sylvester, owner of a Pilates studio in the Mission neighborhood.
Pete Sittnick, a managing partner of Waterbar and EPIC Steak restaurants on the city’s waterfront, said he was worried about slow check-ins, resistance from guests against the requirement or people showing up without proper documentation. So far, he said, the lunch crowd came with vaccination cards in their hands, and the line to get through the door was short.
“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,” he 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 could disrupt the city’s economic rebound. She also hopes it will encourage vaccine holdouts to join the 79% of the population that have gotten their shots.
“This is not a punishment,” Breed said Friday. “It’s really about a chance to try and get us moving in the right direction and keeping people safe.”
The mandate goes further than New York City, which requires people to be at least partially vaccinated for a variety of high-risk indoor activities, and New Orleans, which requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for indoor dining or drinking. All three cities make exceptions for people who don’t qualify for the vaccine, including children under 12.
It follows a number of tough safety 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 U.S. to issue a stay-at-home order, and was the first big city in the nation to require all city employees to be vaccinated, without the option of testing regularly.
This week, the city sent letters recommending a 10-day suspension without pay for 20 employees in police, fire and sheriff’s departments who refused to report their vaccination status by the Aug. 12 deadline, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has also tighten the rules after announcing the reopening of California’s economy in June. He has required 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.
Local business groups have supported the new vaccine mandate, saying it will protect their employees’ and customers’ health 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.
Jody McCord said the mandate forced her to cancel plans to meet relatives visiting from Wisconsin at her favorite dine-in spots because not everyone in her party is fully vaccinated. They had to take their reunion across San Francisco Bay to restaurant in Sausalito.
“It puts people between a rock and a hard place,” McCord said.
Online ordering and reservation systems such as OpenTable are helping businesses by warning customers of the mandate ahead of time. The city’s hospitality industry has launched a campaign called “Relax, We’re Vaxxed” to get the word out to travelers.
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 digital vaccine credential will suffice. Proof of vaccination issued by foreign governments is also acceptable.
Pearce Cleaveland, co-owner of the Temple nightclub, said his security guards have been trained to check all forms of vaccination proof and they have caught some people with fake 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.
Workers have until Oct. 13 to prove they are fully vaccinated and Cleaveland said he expects to meet compliance by then.
After a sharp increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the 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.
“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.”