Sunset Park is one of those New York City neighborhoods where you could eat every meal at a different restaurant for weeks and never get tired of your options.
For a 50-block stretch, you’ll find soup dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, empanadas, tamales, tacos, pizza… And now, you’ll also find the same piece of paper taped to the doors of most of these restaurants, courtesy of the city. It says: “New York City requires you to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter this business.”
“We’ve had so many people walk into the restaurant and have no idea that it was required,” said Linda Garcia, a waitress at El Pollo Peruano Dos, a Peruvian restaurant that serves dishes like roasted chicken and Lomo Saltado, a stir fry with steak.
It’s her job to break the news to customers.
“We usually ask them, is it for dine-in or takeout? And whenever they say dine-in, we ask them if we could see their vaccination card before they enter,” she said.
And that’s where things can get a little sticky. Some people are cool with it. They say it makes the restaurant feel safer. That’s how Garcia feels too. Others give her a hard time.
“The weather has been crazy hot outside lately, and people sometimes want to stay inside and eat where there’s fresh air conditioner and stuff,” she said. It’s hard to be the one telling them no. Mario Subia struggles with that too. He’s a server at a Mexican restaurant down the street, called Maria’s Bistro Mexicano. Inside, its brick walls are draped with brightly colored textiles and pictures of Frida Kahlo and La Virgen de Guadalupe.
“You know, like, it’s the rules are the rules,” he said. “I don’t want to ask you if you got it or not, I don’t really even care. But I’m like, my boss says, you can’t come in if you don’t got it. And like, what do you want? Like, I’m sorry. “
The way some people react makes him feel bad. The other thing that’s hard about this — he’s not sure how to tell if a vaccine card or a picture of a vaccine card is real. He’s just been winging it.
Another question business have: do you have to check IDs, along with the vaccination card? Yes, according to the city’s guidance about the vaccine mandate, published online.
But a lot of bar and restaurant workers haven’t gotten that message.
There’s also a vaccination verification app created by the state called the Excelsior Pass. People are still figuring out how to use that too.
When I walk into a fancy cocktail bar down the block called L’Wren, the owner and bartender Travis Klaus asks to see my proof of vaccination.
I open the app, which decides to update itself at that very moment. So we wait. Then Klaus thinks maybe there’s a QR code he needs to scan with his phone. “I’m thinking I need to like, scan it and then check this and go back with the ID,” he says. But all the app shows is my name, birthdate, and an expiration date, set a year after I got my second dose. Later I realize I just needed to tap on the screen and the QR code would appear.
This is not something you can expect a busy bartender to do, customer by customer on a weekend. So Klaus just hired someone to stand at the door a few days a week, for $20 an hour, to check people’s vaccination status.
There’s a workaround for customers who say no. They can drink their cocktails outside.
“I have some people, some of my regulars. who don’t want to get vaccinated that won’t come in anymore. I actually have one of my guys out there right now who’s a total gentleman, but he really doesn’t want to be vaccinated. And so he’s just gonna hang outside from now on,” Klaus said.
After we’re done talking, I approach two customers sitting out there, on benches on opposite sides of the door. One says he’s in favor of the mandate. The other doesn’t want to talk about it.