January 06, 2022

Restaurants prepare for vaccine mandates

Operators hope local, federal rules will boost protection against omicron variant.

Many restaurant businesses are complying with mandates requiring customers and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

After nearly two years of dealing with COVID-19, and now the omicron strain of the virus that is infecting millions, many restaurant businesses are complying with President Biden’s federal mandate as well as numerous state and local regulations that require customers and staff to be vaccinated before being allowed to dine or work indoors.

The federal mandate, issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), requires companies with 100 or more workers to ensure that employees are vaccinated or test negative weekly. 

The rule, scheduled be effective Jan. 4, has been challenged by several states, but is still moving forward for now. It’s been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and OSHA says it won’t issue citations on the vaccination piece before Jan. 10, and Feb. 9 on the testing part.

A checklist of questions for restaurateurs 

In an effort to help operators prepare, the National Restaurant Association’s food safety and policy experts have created a checklist of questions that could help when complying with these mandates. 

* Have you established what the acceptable proof of vaccination is with those who will be checking? Will you need the actual cards or will copies or photos on phones work?

* Will your employees and customers need to show a legal form of identification, in addition to their vaccination cards, to prove identity? What forms of ID will be acceptable?

* Do you need to verify that the various proofs of vaccination are real? What do you do if your checker suspects a fake or is presented with a less-than-acceptable form of proof?

* Have you determined who on your staff will enforce vaccination requirements at your restaurant? Do you have candidates for each shift? How will management be involved?

* How do you plan to explain your vaccination policy to customers before and as they arrive at your restaurant? Will you need signage? Will you post the information on your website and/or on social media?

* Have you determined the logistics of where and how customers show proof so you don’t slow down service? How do you plan to turn an on-premises occasion into an off-premises transaction if a customer can’t show proof of vaccination?

* Will you require employees and customers to wear masks indoors despite proof of vaccination? Will you provide complimentary masks for those who don’t have them?

* Do you need to check proof of vaccination for suppliers or vendors, or can they enter with just a mask? 

Policy team answers questions on state and local mandates

There are approximately 20 local COVID-19 vaccination mandates being implemented across the United States. Only New York and Rhode Island have statewide mandates. Michael Ambrose, the Association’s manager of state and local affairs, answered frequently asked questions about mandate compliance.

1. What determines whether a space is considered indoor or outdoor?
Structures put up by the restaurant typically qualify as indoor spaces. For example, a patio area that has walls on three sides doesn’t qualify as an outdoor space.

2. Who must show proof of vaccination? What is the minimum age and who: employees, guests, suppliers, etc.?
When the first wave of vaccine mandates was instituted last fall, they usually applied to employees, guests ages 12 and older, and suppliers. More recently implemented mandates require children between the ages of 5-12 to be vaccinated. Employees are usually included in the mandate; Chicago’s requires unvaccinated employees to undergo weekly testing. Under most mandates, vendors who enter the business for more than a few minutes need to comply with the mandate.

3. What information should checkers look for on vaccination cards, and should the cards be paired with an ID or other information?
Most places require a vaccine card or photo of it. Chicago requires additional ID.

4. What should staffers look for on international vaccination cards?
There is a WHO card that several jurisdictions say is acceptable. Proof of vaccination outside the U.S. can be an official immunization record that includes the individual’s full name, date of birth, vaccine product name (ex: AstraZeneca/SK Bioscience), the date, country and site where it was administered, and the name of the person who administered it.

5. Can people use the bathrooms without showing proof of vaccination?
Yes. Everyone has an exemption to come in for quick and limited purposes, such as picking up orders or to use the bathroom. Masks are either required or recommended.

6. Should restaurateurs have a written implementation plan of how he/she will verify proof of vaccination for staff and guests? Does it need to be on site and available for inspection?
Several jurisdictions, including New York and Chicago, do require such plans, so operators might want to have them ready to submit to inspectors.

7. What are the penalties for noncompliance?
Currently, most jurisdictions are lenient on enforcement. For example, the new NYC health director has said the health department will focus on helping noncompliant businesses vaccinate their employees rather than fine them. That said, most mandates carry penalties of fines between $500 and $1,000 for the first offense. There are larger amounts, or possible license suspension or imprisonment, for subsequent violations.

To stay up to date on vaccine and mask mandates across the U.S., use this handy tracking resource.