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By Katherine Pendrill
There’s truly never a dull moment when you own or manage a restaurant. Being a restaurateur is highly fulfilling and exciting – but it’s hard work, and sometimes, there are hard times. That’s never been more accurate than during the past two years, especially as COVID-19 regulations continue to change. Now, one question that many operators are trying to navigate is “can restaurants ask for proof of vaccination?” and we’re about to shed some light on the subject.
As the situation with the pandemic evolves, many states and provinces – and various cities within them – now have their own specific vaccine mandates for customers. If that’s the case in your area, this guide is for you. We’ll cover questions such as:
And, we’ll offer 3 useful tips for complying with a vaccine mandate, without dramatically overhauling your operations. Let’s get started.
DISCLAIMER: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.
“No shirt, no shoes, no service.” We’re all familiar with that saying. Today, in the era of COVID-19, you can now add “no vaccine, no service” to that list in many states, provinces, and cities worldwide. The intention? To keep staff and customers as safe as possible from COVID-19, and help businesses stay open.
Specifically, a vaccine mandate for restaurants is a rule that requires guests to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 before they enter your restaurant to dine in. These regulations differ from one place to another, which is why it’s important to know the rules in your local area.
For example in New York City, customers aged 12 or older must present proof that they’ve received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine (or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) to dine indoors. This expanded NYC restaurant vaccine mandate came into effect in late December 2021 as part of a broader set of regulations pertaining to all private sector businesses in the city.
Restaurants must display a vaccination certificate and check guests’ proof of vaccination to comply with the NYC restaurant vaccine mandate. In addition, they have to make vaccination records available to city officials. If a business violates the NYC restaurant vaccine mandate, they could face a fine of $1,000 (per each violation). This is just one example of a restaurant vaccine mandate to give you an idea of what the regulations can include, but each state, province, or city will have its own specific set of rules.
It’s common to wonder how a vaccine mandate for restaurants works from a legal perspective. You may even be getting questions about it from your employees. After all, they’re used to asking guests how they like their steak cooked or whether they prefer fries or salad with their meal – not about more personal topics. Some of your team members may feel uncertain about whether it’s really okay for them to request this kind of information from customers.
Although this is unfamiliar territory, you can rest easy because it’s not a HIPAA violation to simply ask a customer for proof of COVID-19 vaccination. In fact, the better you understand what you can and can’t ask your guests, the better prepared you’ll be to handle any concerns they – or your employees – may have around this issue.
Under federal law, private businesses may request proof of vaccination, according to this article by Healthline. An expert in privacy law and HIPAA explained to the publication that this is possible because HIPAA is not a general data privacy law.
“It does not generally apply to private businesses because most private businesses are not covered entities and do not create, receive, maintain, or transmit protected health information,” the expert, lawyer Elizabeth Litten, told Healthline.
In addition, individual states or provinces may pass their own laws related to vaccine mandates. This means you as a restaurateur should stay up to date with your region’s COVID-19 regulations.
Depending on where your restaurant is located, proof of vaccination against COVID-19 may be a QR code that your staff need to scan when a guest enters your restaurant or when they sit down at the table. Or, you might be able to accept a paper record. In either case, you may or may not also be required to ask customers for ID in addition to their vaccination record.
Keep in mind that if you own multiple restaurants in different locations, the rules surrounding proof of vaccination will likely vary from one place to the next. So, you’ll need to keep up to date with all of this information.
You may be thinking that it’s easier said than done to stay on top of the rules around COVID-19 vaccinations for restaurants. We hear you! That’s why we’ve got a list of 3 simple tips to help you comply with your local vaccine mandate – coming right up.
As we’ve mentioned, restaurant vaccine mandates vary by location. You’ll need to know the rules for your state or province, plus your city if it has specific regulations. So, how can you find this information? More importantly, how can you trust that it’s correct so you can offer stellar and safe restaurant customer service? Hint: steer clear of online forums like Reddit!
If you’re based in the U.S., checking your state health department’s website is a great, reliable place to start. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a handy link to all state, territory, city, county, and tribal health departments on the CDC website. If you click through to the California Department of Public Health, for instance, the first thing you’ll see on its website is a section titled “What you need to know about COVID-19”.
North of the border, provincial department of health websites share similar information to their American counterparts. For example, the Canadian province of Alberta offers a section titled “COVID-19 info for Albertans” on its website. Here, you can read about the provincial vaccine mandate and how businesses can comply with it.
To drill down another layer, check your city or town’s government website for hyper-local information. The City of New York’s website offers a section titled “COVID-19 Citywide Information & Updates,” for instance.
Communication is key when it comes to navigating change successfully. Once you understand the vaccine mandate that applies to your business, put a plan in place. This plan should outline how you’ll train employees to ask customers for proof of vaccination and process their records accordingly. It should also include a clear restaurant communication plan for how you’ll tell guests that proof of vaccination is required to dine at your restaurant.
As much as your plan, this process is unlikely to be a breeze 100% of the time. Prepare your staff in advance for how to handle situations with guests who aren’t able or willing to comply with the vaccine mandate. You may also need to advise staff on how to handle unfamiliar vaccination records, such as those from other countries. And, don’t forget to let your team know you have their back and their safety at work is a priority for you.
Keep in mind that not everyone feels comfortable bringing concerns to management. Don’t wait for your employees to voice a problem. Instead, proactively ask them how they are navigating the vaccine mandate and if they need any additional support from you. Showing that you care in this way can help improve employee retention.
Last but not least, get restaurant technology on your side to make your life easier! You may have already noticed that some restaurants use apps to quickly scan QR codes, keeping guests moving through the door without too much hassle. Try asking your peers in the industry whether they’re using tech in a similar way, what kind of tech they use, and how it works for them.
In addition, you may be able to use reservation software to communicate with customers and keep track of their vaccination status, so you don’t have to ask your regulars about it on repeat.
Some software allows you to inform guests of COVID-19 restrictions by adding a note in the system that will appear on your online booking page and in guests’ confirmation emails. Then, when the customer arrives for their reservation, you can ask for their proof of vaccination and record it in your system. If the system enables you to attach this information to the guest’s profile, it should be available to you for any future reservations they may make.
We’ve now answered the questions, “what is a restaurant vaccine mandate?”, “can restaurants ask for proof of vaccination?”, and “what is considered proof of vaccination?” You’ve also got 3 tips to help you comply with vaccine mandates and navigate the ongoing pandemic restrictions as smoothly as possible.
Katherine is the Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, where she writes about trending topics in food and restaurants. The opposite of a picky eater, she’ll try (almost) anything at least once. Whether it’s chowing down on camel burgers in Morocco or snacking on octopus dumplings in Japan, she’s always up for new food experiences.
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