Local restaurateurs split over vaccine requirements for diners

BENJAMIN SUKLE, CHEF AND OWNER of Providence's Oberlin, is requiring customers to choose proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. / PBN FILE PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

PROVIDENCE – The New York Times called a mere 45 minutes after Benjamin Sukle posted  a new set of COVID-19-related restrictions at his downtown Providence restaurant Oberlin.

Sukle, a James Beard-nominated chef whose first Providence restaurant birch – which is now closed- earned a number of national accolades, was no stranger to press. But this time, the spotlight wasn’t shining on his culinary innovations. Instead, it was because he was requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for anyone who wanted to eat at the 50-seat, Union Street restaurant.

One day after Sukle’s July 29 announcement, fellow James Beard-nominee James Mark followed suit, adopting the same protocols for indoor dining at his Providence restaurants, north and big king. 

Beyond the pair, few in Rhode Island, if any, have followed. 

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They are the only two restaurateurs that either knew of who had gone beyond state or city-imposed restrictions when it came to indoor dining. Both explained their decisions as motivated by health and safety – making both workers and diners feel as comfortable as possible amid an alarming resurgence of virus transmissions and positive case counts.  

“We’re setting a tone, for ourselves and what we do in our work,” said Mark. “One restaurant is not going to solve this crisis. But we can be ahead of the curve.”

Already, Mark has seen the anxiety that hung heavy over indoor dining for many during  last year and a half begin to dissipate. Some customers told him outright they feel better because of his new rules.

Whether that comfort has translated to a boost for business, it was too soon to say.

But other restaurant owners who have not adopted similar protocols said were hesitant because they feared losing customers and employees.

Anthony Tarro, co-owner of Siena Restaurant Group, which has three locations statewide, said he has struggled with whether to opt in to similar restrictions at either of the two Siena restaurants currently open. As a cancer survivor,  he is immunocompromised therefore more at risk, although he has been vaccinated.

He was reluctant however, to take on the role of a trailblazer.

“It can be a slippery slope,” he said. “I think about the negative reactions.”

Indeed, during state-imposed restrictions on dining last year, service industry workers bore the brunt of peoples’ anger over these rules.

Sukle’s decision at Oberlin drew a small but vocal number of online critics who likened him to the leader of an authoritarian government, among other unflattering descriptions. But he estimated 99% of those who walked through the doors of the restaurant were happy to comply.

Ultimately, it’s really a lose-lose scenario.

“No matter what you choose, there are people who are going to tell me I am an idiot for even having indoor dining at all right now,” Mark said. “And then there are people who are going to tell me I am an idiot for having any kind of vaccination or test requirement.”

Sukle stood by his decision despite the criticism. But he was indignant that he as a small restaurant owner was forced to bear the brunt of the attacks, absent any kind of state or city mandate.

A number of other cities and states, including New York City, have already adopted these guidelines as requirements for restaurants and other indoor settings like gyms. But Gov. Daniel J. McKee has so far not suggested any kind of business restrictions, insisting that even the jump  COVID-19 cases has not correlated to overcrowding at hospitals or major increases in deaths.

Providence on Monday announced plans to require vaccinations or regular negative COVID-19 tests for its employees, but has also held off on restrictions for other businesses.

Sukle saw this as hypocritical.

“We’re labeled as this progressive city, and I wish that sentiment would really take hold,” he said.

He added that he was “jealous” of New York City restaurant owners for having city leadership that took on the responsibility of imposing these rules.

Theresa Agonia, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, said in an email on Tuesday that the city will continue to align with state guidelines while also monitoring the data to determine if new restrictions are required.

In the meantime, Mark was hopeful more restaurant owners might add more safety requirements for guests on their own accord. 

“It seems a lot more daunting than it is,” he said of the extra step of asking customers to show proof of vaccination or a test result.

Sukle likened it to asking for identification at a bar to confirm someone was of legal drinking age. 

But others were unconvinced. Rick Simone, president of the Federal Hill Commerce Association and founder of a small-business group called the Ocean State Coalition, shared a number of concerns. Among them, was Simone’s concern that asking diners to show vaccine records or COVID-19 tests would violate privacy standards for health information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

That concern in particular is unfounded. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that HIPAA only applies to medical information from health care providers, plans and their business associates. Any other group, including an employer, asking for proof of a COVID-19 vaccine does not violate HIPAA.

But like Tarro, Simone also feared that restrictions would reignite the prior period of arguments and tensions between customers and the workers forced to impose those rules.

Another consideration for Tarro was the need to keep his workers. While both Mark and Sukle’s staff had all opted to get vaccinated, Tarro had a few among his 80-person workforce who refused to get the shot. Requiring them to do so could mean losing them at a time when he was already so short-staffed that his Providence restaurant has not reopened.

“To lose one employee, let alone two, three, four or five that don’t wish to become vaccinated, it could be the difference between staying open or closing,” he said.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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