Three Portland-area restaurants announced over the weekend that customers dining indoors must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Little Giant on Danforth Street, the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club on Market Street and Crown Jewel on Great Diamond Island have instituted the new rules: While anyone is welcome to eat on their outdoor patios and decks, customers wishing to dine inside must be vaccinated. The policies also apply to people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and people with children under 12 who can’t yet be vaccinated.

None of the restaurants is requiring proof of vaccination at the door — for now.

“We will eventually be requiring vaccination cards,” said Briana Volk, who owns Portland Hunt & Alpine with her husband, Andrew Volk. “We’re trying to figure out how to make that work.”

The vaccinated-only policies come at a time when restaurants around the country are starting to ask their customers for proof of vaccination. Restaurants in food-loving cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans and Seattle are setting individual vaccination policies in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases and increased travel. On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked private businesses such as bars and restaurants to consider requiring proof of vaccination as a condition for admission.

A recent internal report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obtained and reported by the Washington Post, said the delta variant of the coronavirus is as contagious as chicken pox, and much more likely than the strain that initially swept the country to cause serious illness.

The CDC recently recommended that fully vaccinated Americans wear masks in public indoor settings in areas where there is substantial or high transmission of the virus. In Maine, that recommendation would apply in Waldo County, which has high transmission, and Somerset County, which has substantial transmission, according to the CDC. The rest of the state, including Cumberland County, is experiencing moderate transmission.

“Given the recent rise in cases, and the news that we have about the delta variant and its transmissibility, it just seems to be the smart thing to do,” said Alex Wight, owner of Crown Jewel.

Wight said she decided to post the new policy on Instagram Sunday after the restaurant started getting “a notable amount” of cancellations from people who have tested positive for COVID over the past week. Wight does not ask callers about their health status; she said people volunteered the information when they called to cancel their reservations.

“Some of these people actually sound quite panicked, and it makes you feel for them,” she said.

WORRIED ABOUT AN OUTBREAK

Crown Jewel is a seasonal restaurant, open from June to September, that is weather-dependent because diners are less inclined to make the boat trip to the island if the weather is bad. (About 80 percent of her customers come from the mainland.) Coming off a rainy July, and with only five weeks left in the season, Wight is worried about having to shut her business down again after an already challenging year. Losing even one or two days because of COVID “is really killer at this point for us,” she said.

She also wants to protect her staff, about half of whom live in the small island community. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night thinking that we were ground zero for any type of outbreak that may occur on the island,” she said.

Volk said she and her husband have always followed news of the pandemic closely, and she considers the new policy “a step for us to take care of our staff, but also our community.”

“Andrew and I are parents of two young children who can’t be vaccinated,” she said. “My son has immunocompromised lung issues. These aren’t things that we want to take a risk on. Staff have family members who are immunocompromised as well, so we try to take all of those things into consideration to create a safe work environment.”

Ian Malin, owner of Little Giant, said his restaurant will follow the honor system since Maine does not have a program like New York’s that makes it easy for residents to show proof of vaccination at the door. That program, called Excelsior Pass, provides digital proof that a person has been vaccinated or tested negative for the coronavirus. Vaccinated people can either print out their pass or store it in an app on their phone.

FACTORING IN STAFF SAFETY

Malin said he did not want to speak about the new policy in depth because ever since he posted it Sunday he has been getting comments on social media that he considers threatening.

“I want to factor in the safety of my staff,” he said. “We’re getting a bunch of threatening (messages) from different people, so the less I say at this point, just to let things calm down, the better. I think I need to put that first.”

Little Giant’s Instagram post got more than 2,500 “likes” and more than 1,350 comments, including one that said, “I hope you go bankrupt.”

Another called the policy “Orwellian” and said it was “a shame someone from Maine would embrace discrimination so openly. I guarantee that you have just ended your business.” A third commenter asked if the restaurant would “cover my vaccine damage costs.”

“You should be ashamed, and any person who has half a brain will see how discriminatory this (expletive) is and will dine elsewhere, REGARDLESS of their vaxxxination (sic) status,” wrote another commenter. “Shame on you!!! Set a better example for the future of this nation! Promote freedom of choice not this tyrannical radical policy!”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the United States – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – are safe and effective, with serious side effects rare among the more than 342 million doses that have been given. People who are vaccinated also tend to get milder cases of COVID-19 if they do become infected. And unvaccinated people now account for the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 cases.

Little Giant also received many positive comments from customers who said they thought Malin was doing the right thing. One said the new policy “totally is your right to do and I 100% support you. And as a vaccinated adult will be in this week to support you.”

Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine, a trade group that represents the hospitality industry, said that while the new policies may turn off some customers, “I think there will be people who will frequent the establishment knowing that they’re asking people to be vaccinated.”

WITHIN THEIR RIGHTS

Dugal said the restaurants are within their rights to set such policies, comparing it to “marketing to a specific demographic.” Asking for proof of vaccination is another matter, he said, one that raises legal concerns about discrimination against people with disabilities, since some people can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. But he added that offering outdoor seating to the unvaccinated would be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Dugal said HospitalityMaine will not offer advice to restaurants that are considering vaccination policies until all the legal details have been worked out. Of the three restaurants he’s aware of that now have them, he said, “These folks are on the cutting edge, and I applaud them for being on the cutting edge.”

Malin said Little Giant will run on the honor system, “so we’re just asking people to respect the policy at this point.”

Wight also said she will not require proof of vaccination, and hopes that customers “will do the right thing.”

“I don’t want to be policing people,” she said.

She said some people with young children have already called and respectfully asked that their reservations be moved outside. A handful of others “were not so pleasant.” Wight said, “Maybe at the end of the day those aren’t the people that we want to be attracting to our restaurant anyhow.”

Volk said that hospitality is not just “getting someone a drink in their hands and being nice to them.” For her, it also means keeping people safe when they are in her bar/restaurant, and keeping the greater community safe. If she loses business because of the new vaccination policy, she said, she’s fine with that.

“I can live with that,” Volk said. “I wouldn’t be able to live with getting people sick or possibly killing people, and keeping my business open.”

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