California bars start demanding proof of vaccinations as Delta surges. Will vax requirements spread?

·West Coast Correspondent
·6 min read

Every American bargoer knows the ritual: Flash a valid ID at the door to prove you’re old enough to enter.

But as the hypercontagious Delta variant drives yet another nationwide surge in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths, more and more customers — particularly in California — are now being required to show an additional document: their COVID-19 vaccination card.

And those who can’t are being turned away.

“We just started it because it’s clear that there’s just a segment of the population that is not vaccinated,” Janet Clyde, the owner of San Francisco’s Vesuvio Cafe, told SFGate this week. “And really until this settles down, I think it’s definitely safer for our staff and our clientele if we limit the indoors to people who have proof of vaccination.”

The concept of “vaccine passports” isn’t new. For months, experts have debated the merits and mechanics of vaccination verification as certain states (mostly liberal ones) have created their own optional digital vaccination cards and other states (mostly conservative ones) have preemptively banned businesses from requiring any proof of vaccination. Sensing how divisive a top-down policy would be, both the Biden administration and Democratic governors have refused to mandate vaccine passports.

Kindrick Brooke checks a vaccination card outside Risky Business, that was once The Other Door but closed during the Covid-19 pandemic in the North Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on May 21, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
Kindrick Brooke checks a vaccination card outside Risky Business, a private club in North Hollywood, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

At first, most businesses followed suit — especially as the U.S. fully reopened this spring and the pandemic seemed to wane. But Delta is starting to change that calculation.

Over the last two weeks, COVID cases have skyrocketed by nearly 200 percent nationwide, hospitalizations are up by more than 50 percent and deaths are ticking up too. As Delta spreads, it is becoming increasingly clear that “breakthrough infections” in fully vaccinated people — who almost never wind up in the hospital but who can get sick and spread the virus to others — aren’t as vanishingly rare as experts had hoped.

Small-business owners are rethinking their policies as a result.

“I didn’t know anybody who was [requiring vaccine cards at first], only the most strict people,” Ben Bleiman, the head of the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, told SFGate. “Just in the last 24 hours, I’ve seen a lot of people changing their tunes. So I think we’re in the middle of a big flux.”

For now, that shift is mostly concentrated in big, liberal — and majority-vaccinated — cities.

In L.A., where new COVID cases have more than quadrupled since July 4, at least 17 bars have started to require proof of vaccination in recent days, and one local fitness studio has been making waves with its “no vax, no workout” policy. “Nobody’s gonna scare me off, because we cannot slide backwards,” the owner told KCRW. “It’s not good for our country, it’s not good for the health and safety of everyone. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s fine. But you’re not going to come into my facility. It’s just the way it is.”

As similar efforts gain steam in New York City, there are signs from San Francisco that vaccine requirements may become the citywide standard. Earlier this week, the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, which represents 500 bars, told the San Francisco Chronicle that it’s weighing a vaccine verification initiative.

Fully vaccinated customers gather at the bar inside Risky Business, that was once The Other Door but closed during the Covid-19 pandemic in the North Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on May 21, 2021.  (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
Fully vaccinated customers at Risky Business. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are anecdotally seeing a lot of [vaccinated] people come down with mild to medium cases of COVID,” Bleiman, the group’s leader, said in an interview with SFGate. “I kind of see the writing on the wall, and I think if we get out ahead of it — and it’s not like we’re shutting down or anything, we’re just saying you’ve gotta have a vaccine.”

When asked if the city might adopt a similar mandate or recommendation for all businesses, the mayor’s office said it’s exploring “all options.”

“I want to be very, very clear,” Mayor London Breed said Monday at a press conference. “There are a lot of folks who still need to be vaccinated. And I don’t want everyone else who did their duty to get vaccinated to suffer.”

Vaccinated customers have largely welcomed the new policies, which help shield them from getting sick or transmitting the virus while also allowing them to enjoy the everyday freedoms that vaccination was supposed to restore.

But backlash is beginning to bubble up on social media, where angry (and presumably unvaccinated) commenters insist that vaccine requirements violate their rights under HIPAA, a federal law that aims to protect citizen privacy by restricting how health information can be disclosed.

“​​[You] should be ashamed of supporting and endorsing medical apartheid and modern day segregation,” one naysayer wrote on the Instagram account of an L.A. bar and music venue that recently started to require proof of vaccination.

The HIPAA complaint doesn’t hold water, according to legal experts, because unvaccinated people can always refuse to share their vaccination status or visit a different establishment instead. Furthermore, HIPAA rules only prevent certain health entities from improperly disclosing your health information; they don’t bar private companies from asking if you’re vaccinated. To accommodate unvaccinated customers, many participating businesses also say they will accept a negative COVID test result from the last 72 hours in lieu of a vaccination card. Others allow the unvaccinated to sit outside.

Resistance to vaccine requirements at bars and other businesses, however, will likely intensify if Delta continues to surge and the policy starts to spread beyond liberal metropolises. In late June — before Delta took off nationally — just 39 percent of U.S. adults favored “restaurants and bars requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for indoor dining or drinking,” according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted at the time; another 45 percent were opposed, and 16 percent were unsure. Most vaccinated Americans (54 percent) approved of the idea, as did most Democrats (61 percent); most unvaccinated Americans (65 percent) and Republicans (73 percent) disapproved. The battle lines, in other words, are drawn.

But while yet another COVID-19 culture war may seem inevitable, it’s also possible that some number of unvaccinated Americans — particularly the younger, less hesitant ones who simply thought “why bother?” once cases started to fall — will now decide they’d rather just get the jab than see their drinking and dining options dwindle as their risk of catching and spreading Delta soars. In the June Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 15 percent of unvaccinated adults said they would be more likely to get vaccinated if doing so “gave me easier access to things like travel, sports, entertainment and restaurants” — including 20 percent of 18- to 29-year olds and 19 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that anyone who wants to patronize bars, cafés, restaurants or shopping malls in his country will soon have to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test. More than 1.3 million people made vaccine appointments the same day, according to the Associated Press — a record in a country where hesitancy is nearly as high as it is in the U.S.

Most of them were under 35.

Cover thumbnail photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

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