Seattle should require vaccine proof at restaurants and bars

Food service workers have been exposed to too much risk already. Enough is enough.

restaurant goers

Brandon Prater and Brie Hartbeck, visiting from St. Louis, talk as they finish their meal at Ravenna Varsity Restaurant in Seattle on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, as Washington State ended most coronavirus restrictions. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Pretty soon, New York City is going to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining. San Francisco won’t be far behind. So why isn’t Seattle following suit?

It’s true that many local restaurants and bars are doing vaccine checks at the door anyway. I had to flash my CDC bona fides for the first time to get brunch at Oddfellows last weekend — and I’m glad I did. Beignets taste better when you’re less worried about getting a breakthrough case.

But restaurants shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the unvaccinated customers who get indignant about these policies, and food service workers — many of whom have been face-to-face with unmasked diners for almost two years now — should finally be granted the relief that a more sweeping mandate can provide.

This is simple stuff: Indoor dining remains one of the riskiest activities for COVID-19 transmission. The vaccines to reduce that risk are free and readily available. And if a city like New York, with over 20,000 restaurants, can implement an indoor dining vaccine mandate, so can we. Then, anyone who wants to complain about the policy can rail against city hall instead of taking it out on some long-suffering host.

I asked the mayor’s office why Seattle wasn’t following New York City’s example. In response, a spokesperson said, “Mayor Durkan supports any employers in Seattle who are requiring vaccines and all businesses who are requiring customers and employees to be vaccinated, with exceptions where legally required — these are right decisions that will save lives.”

I can think of another right decision that will save lives: A government-enforced vaccine mandate for indoor dining during a Delta variant surge in King County. But when asked if the mayor was even considering making it mandatory for restaurants to check vaccine cards, a spokesperson confirmed that she was not.

There’s a wide gap between an unenforceable expression of “support” and a New York City-style mandate — and there’s no reason we can’t close it. This delay in implementing a necessary next step is reminiscent of March 2020, when despite having the first reported cases of COVID-19 transmission in the country, our stay-at-home order came days after California’s.

Washington has been good at recognizing these kinds of threats early, which is why the hesitation that often comes afterward feels like dragging feet. We know what we have to do. No one really wants to do it, just like no one wanted to still be dealing with a global pandemic in August 2021. But this is the right move for the moment.

An indoor dining vaccine mandate isn’t just about preventing rare breakthrough cases. Seattle passed the threshold of having 70% of its eligible population fully vaccinated way back in June — a milestone we should be proud of and one that should indeed change the way we’re able to go about our daily lives, dining included. But we’re still too far from 100% for comfort, and meanwhile the unvaccinated population needs to be protected from a dangerous new variant of the illness that spreads even more easily indoors.

Elazar Sontag, a staff writer for Eater who penned the recent editorial, “Just Mandate the Vaccine for Indoor Dining Nationwide,” pointed out to me that one purpose of such a requirement is to drive home how contagious the Delta variant can be.

“It’s not just that it incentivizes people getting vaccinated,” Sontag said. “It’s also a matter of really making it clear that these activities are just too risky for people who aren’t vaccinated.”

Anyone plugged into reputable news websites knows that Delta is far more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19. Maybe you’ve been poring over R numbers or reading about breakthrough clusters in your spare time. These are activities made possible by the twin luxuries of time and education.

But my own experience with a small handful of unvaccinated friends and family members suggests that many are not aware of the rising risk. They’re going to the movies and eating out at restaurants, not realizing how much easier it is to catch the currently dominant strain of COVID-19 than it was to catch the 2020 version.

Nag though I might, sometimes the only thing that can get through to someone is a meaningful interruption of a routine. It’s easy to brush aside an annoying sister-in-law, less so a mayor or a governor who puts an added step between you and the diner.

Call it liberal hectoring, call it overkill, but the more we can do to incentivize the vaccine and communicate the risks of not getting it, the better. There’s no reason to wait.

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