‘Mission impossible’: With Boston’s proof-of-vaccination mandate set to begin, businesses worry

Paul Deuterio of Galleria Umberto in the North End has decided to temporarily switch to a take-out-only operation until the mayor overturns the rule. Customers inside a business for a short period, to pick up food, for example, do not need to show proof of vaccination. For its popular pizzeria, the application of such a rule is simply not worth it.

“He’s a non-runner,” Deuterio said. “A family arrives and you have four or five people. If one of them is not vaccinated, what do we do, throw him out?

In initiating the requirement, Wu said it would help stave off another wave of COVID, inspire more people to get vaccinated, and protect indoor gatherings. And she was joined that day at a press conference at City Hall by business owners and leaders from cities and towns across Greater Boston who expressed their support.

But restaurateur Chris Coombs suspects that checking his customers’ vaccination status won’t dramatically change the course of the pandemic in Boston.

“Someone could show me their fully vaccinated and boosted card and still be positive for COVID,” said Coombs, owner of Boston Chops in the South End and Deuxave on Commonwealth Avenue. “I’m not really sure what it achieves other than making it more uncomfortable for those who aren’t vaccinated.”

To avoid lines of people outside his restaurants, Coombs has his staff collect vaccination IDs when they call parties to confirm reservations. Restaurants will store this information in an internal database so repeat customers only have to go through the process once.

Yet he knows his staff are ill-equipped to authenticate any documents a client might present. Under the warrant, business owners are not required to apply for additional identification.

“It’s kind of mission impossible,” Coombs said. “A noble thought.”

The rules will come into force in stages, starting on Saturday, with people over 12 having to show proof of at least one dose, and culminating in the requirement that anyone over 5 show a full vaccination of here on May 1st. A spokesperson for Wu’s office said companies that violate the rule will initially receive verbal warnings, then fines of up to $300 for each violation. Companies that repeatedly and deliberately flout the rules could lose their license to operate.

Massachusetts recently rolled out a digital certificate that customers can use to show proof of vaccination, and Boston will launch a smartphone app called “B Together” on Saturday that gives people easy access to a photo of their CDC card.

Massachusetts residents can now access the SMART Health Card, which provides a secure digital way to prove that you have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The common project

Boston business owners expect to see an immediate impact this weekend, noting that while most Bostonians are vaccinated, many still aren’t, reducing their pool of potential customers.

“As Mayor Wu casually states, 70% of the city has been fully vaccinated,” Coombs said. “I’m thinking of the 30% that is removed from the total addressable market.”

The policy also doesn’t leave much room for religious, medical, or personal belief exemptions. If someone is unvaccinated, Wu suggests engaging in “cooperative dialogue to find an alternate means of service, such as providing take-out rather than catering service.”

“Maybe that solves the problem with a restaurant, but how do you solve the problem for a concert hall or a swimming pool where someone wants to practice?” said Jeffrey Gilbreth, a partner in labor and employment practice in the Boston office of the law firm Nixon Peabody.

And with so many struggling businesses, no one really wants to turn away customers.

“If people didn’t have masks, businesses might pull one out and say, ‘OK, you can come in,'” Gilbreth said. “They can’t fill the void of someone’s vaccination status.”

And — at least for now — Boston is largely alone in requiring vaccination to eat out or go to the gym. While Salem and Brookline adopted similar mandates, and Somerville is about to do it on Friday, other communities continue to debate the benefits. Even neighboring Cambridge, whose mayor expressed support for Wu’s plan in December, seems unlikely to adopt a similar mandate.

“We prioritized education and awareness over punitive enforcement,” City Manager Louis DePasquale told City Council on Monday. “As such, I am not committing Cambridge to a vaccination mandate plan at this time.”

This “patchwork quilt” of rules in cities and towns is the logical result of the state government’s refusal to impose a mandate across Massachusetts, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Draisen, whose agency often works on regional efforts like this, said he expects more communities to join him in the coming weeks, noting that not all mayors have the same authority as Boston.

“Generally, people felt that [Wu] was going in the right direction,” he said. “Obviously there are people who don’t agree with that.”

Still, some have said such a mandate in the region’s biggest city could help shift inoculation rates by attaching consequences to some people’s decisions not to get vaccinated, said Dean Eckles, professor marketing fellow at MIT. He said this could be particularly true for young people “who face greater social pressure to engage in mandated activities”.

A customer took a takeout order near a sign announcing the upcoming change.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

It may also help unvaccinated people realize that the majority of Bostonians are vaccinated, he added, information that has been shown to increase vaccination.

It’s less clear whether the mandate will achieve its other stated goals of mitigating the winter surge or protecting indoor gatherings. San Francisco and New York, which have had similar mandates in place for months, have seen cases rise in recent weeks. Officials did not respond to questions about their proof-of-vaccination policies.

In Manhattan, Liam McGreevy, manager of Legends Sports Bar, said most patrons comply with the rule by showing a QR code or CDC card to an employee standing at the front door. Employees don’t scan digital codes to verify them or spend more than a few seconds looking at the paper card to make sure it’s genuine.

“We’re a busy sports bar, so there’s an honor system in play,” McGreevy said.

The Boston rollout, meanwhile, may initially have some hiccups, said Draisen, the regional planning director, but he thinks the city should still move quickly.

“Sometimes if you just implement it, which is pretty much what Mayor Wu does, it works out fine,” Draisen said. “If you ask companies, ‘Do you want to do this?’ you’ll still have a small minority, but a very vocal minority, who will say, ‘No, the sky is going to fall on us’.”

Bessie King, general manager of the Villa Mexico restaurant in the Financial District, said she’s all for the vaccination proof mandate if it helps businesses stay open. Many, she notes, have already exhausted their savings and federal relief funds.

“If people expect us to keep working, we have to do it in a safe way,” said King, who is also a founding board member of Massachusetts Restaurants United, which represents independent establishments. “If people don’t cooperate, small businesses will close left and right.”

Still, she acknowledged that the vaccination mandate isn’t foolproof, that small family restaurants like hers probably can’t afford to hire someone to check vaccination cards at the door. And, King notes, it won’t drive office workers back to the empty towers all around her, either.

“At this point, it’s not even just about vaccines, it’s about people wanting out,” King said. “And we don’t know how to convince them, because they are comfortable and safe at home.”


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.

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