How Will the City Actually Enforce the Restaurant Vaccination Mandate?

A Manhattan restaurant window with two paper signs: one explaining masks are required for unvaccinated patrons, and the other advertising 'help wanted.'
Photo: Allison Hess/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Recently, Mayor de Blasio announced that New York will require proof of vaccination for anyone going into restaurants and gyms or attending indoor performances, an effort to squash rising case numbers — and incentivize New Yorkers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The mandate — which requires would-be patrons to show their paper vaccine card, the state’s Excelsior Pass, the NYC COVID Safe app or an official record from outside NYC or the U.S. proving that they’ve had at least one dose — first takes effect on August 17, also known as tomorrow. (And one day later than the rollout date that was originally announced) As of now, all restaurants are supposed to start checking vaccine status, although the full enforcement of the policy won’t actually begin until September 13. The month in between, the New York Times explains, is supposed to be a kind of “grace period” for establishments to “figure out how to follow the new mandate.”

Here’s how the so-called Key to NYC program works. Customers over 12 years old and all staff (presumably also over 12) at affected businesses will have to show proof of vaccination to enter. The official guidelines are also clear that “this requirement may not be used as an excuse for businesses to discriminate against anyone who has valid vaccination proof.” (The public are also allowed to, for example, use a business’s bathroom or partake in another short activity — a delivery, perhaps, or anything else taking less than ten minutes — without showing proof of vaccination.)

Who will do the actual checking? The businesses, of course, and there is now a new set of guidelines that must be followed. First, businesses must hang the “Vaccination Required Poster for Businesses” somewhere “that is clearly visible to people before they enter your business.” Businesses also must develop and maintain “a written implementation plan that will be available for inspection,” which includes clear instructions on how the vaccination status of staff and customers will be checked either before or immediately after they enter.

Once the enforcement period begins on September 13, inspectors “from various City agencies” will be responsible for ensuring businesses are in compliance. Any business who violate the mandate will be subject to a $1,000 fine for the first offense. An official FAQ warns: “Repeated violations may result in increased fine amounts or other enforcement action.”

Even before the mandate, a growing number of restaurants were individually requiring all would-be patrons be vaxxed, an admirable but piecemeal system that left employees to deal with disgruntled customers. The mandate won’t change that part, but at least in theory, it should give workers some backup. “The fact that it’s not just me saying that, it’s a whole body government, gives me some support,” one East Village bartender told Grub Street when the news was announced last week.

The mandate, though, only makes an impact if restaurants have to actually follow it. Given that it’s an effort to curb the spread of a virus that has rendered normal life mostly unlivable, one might think that it would be easy to convince people to follow through on their own. As we have seen, however, we cannot make such assumptions.

This post has been updated with new information and to reflect the new start date.

How Will NYC Enforce the Restaurant Vaccination Mandate?