Restaurants in large cities are reinstating some COVID restrictions. Is South Bend next?

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Restaurants in large cities are reinstating some COVID restrictions. Is South Bend next?

In response to the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant that has subsequently caused a spike in positivity rates across the country, government and public health officials have begun re-examining safety protocols and recommendations.

And it’s caused some rollback on relaxed restaurant restrictions. 

On Tuesday, New York City announced it will soon require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for people to enter indoor restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues. The new requirement will go into effect Aug. 16, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. The announcement comes a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people, even those vaccinated, to wear masks in indoor public spaces. 

Health officials: Masks prevent COVID-19 transmission. Vaccines prevent deaths.

In Chicago, some restaurants and bar owners are taking the initiative in changing their protocols by requiring customers to wear masks and/or provide proof of vaccination, without being prompted by government mandates as vaccinated staff have tested positive in breakthrough cases.

“I know how tired we all were of wearing masks, and it was really nice to let that go for a while,” Four Moon co-owner Robbie Lane told The Chicago Tribune. “But it doesn’t feel like things are going in a good direction.”

And it’s not far-fetched to think about when or if South Bend area officials or restaurants will follow suit.

“Are they going to shut down restaurants again? My gut tells me no,” said Jeff Morauski, co-owner of Chicory Cafe and Taphouse on the Edge. “But if you asked me two years ago if I thought there would be a global pandemic that would force everything to shut down in the first place, I would’ve said you’re crazy. So I’m not ruling out anything.”

So far, the St. Joseph County health department has not put in place any new mandates since the mask order was rescinded in May. Deputy health officer Dr. Mark Fox told The Tribune last week that he and county health officer Dr. Robert Einterz would consider issuing another emergency order on masking in indoor public spaces if the delta variant surge starts to overly stress hospital resources, as happened last year under the first virus.

Fact check: Businesses can legally ask if patrons have been vaccinated. HIPAA does not apply.

Local case numbers are increasing and, with 47.8% of the population fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, several business owners once again find themselves in the precarious situation of trying to decide what’s best for business all while keeping their staff and customers’ safety in mind. 

And for many, the answer is simply that it’s too early to tell what the next best step may be.

“I’m meeting with (my general manager) this week to discuss about how we go about it,” said Hilary Maich, owner of Render Meat and Potatoes on Jefferson Boulevard. “My staff is fully vaccinated and we feel good (about what we’ve done so far), but some of my clientele are people that will stay home if this starts to get crazy again. … We just want everyone to be comfortable.”

Like Maich, PEGGS co-owner Peg Dalton said she regularly checks in with staff, customers and other restaurant operators to see where comfort levels are. The breakfast and lunch restaurant along South Michigan Street only recently allowed vaccinated staff to work maskless and, like many local restaurants, has kept in place pandemic-era sanitization processes. 

“We’ll continue to let the staff and customers drive the decision making,” Dalton said. “And, of course, if there is any sort of mandate, we’re on board.”

But Navarre Hospitality owner Kurt Janowsky said, in his mind, it’s not fair to impose requirements on those who are vaccinated in order to protect those who have gone against the recommendations. He doesn’t plan to reinstate a mask policy or require vaccination proof at any of the handful of restaurants, bars and venues he operates.

Like many other restaurant owners, Janowsky did not require employees to get vaccinated but highly encouraged it. He said those who are not vaccinated are required to wear masks.

“(We’re) not requiring masks indoors, because we’re going to hope that those people who dine with us are vaccinated,” Janowsky said. “Those who aren’t vaccinated (by choice), I understand, but then they have to live with the consequences of that.”

The recent strain and positivity rate increase have caused restaurant owners to, once again, pivot in how they consider daily operations and protocols. But, at this point, it’s something that they’re used to.

“If there is any relief (after this year), it’s that we adapted and survived,” said Morauski of Chicory and Taphouse. “I was just hoping things would go away this year, but that’s not the case.”

Contact Mary Shown at 574-235-6244 and Follow her on Twitter: @maryshownSBT and @marketbasketSBT.