On the first day Minneapolis required restaurateurs to check that dine-in customers are vaccinated, Frank Gambino had all the tables and chairs stacked in his four Andrea Pizza restaurants.
For now, it's takeout and delivery only. After the pandemic devastated the downtown lunch business and cut his revenue by two-thirds, Gambino could barely staff his kitchen and had no money to hire someone to check vaccination cards at the door, he said.
"We're already getting killed," Gambino said. "As much as I would love everybody to get vaccinated, it's just another reason for people not to come downtown. … We're going to do the no seating, see how that goes for a week, and then we'll re-evaluate from that point and maybe we'll figure out something a little better."
Bar and restaurant owners and their customers confronted the new reality Wednesday, one week after Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter jointly announced that the cities would institute a vaccine-or-test mandate to help stop the continued spread of COVID-19.
While some small businesses independently adopted proof of vaccine policies long before the cities made it mandatory, Minneapolis and St. Paul will now require that guests show proof of immunization or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours to dine in bars, restaurants and anywhere else food and drink are served. In St. Paul, only restaurants that sell alcohol are licensed by the city and therefore subject to the mandate.
The requirement kicks in Jan. 26 for ticketed events.
"When we've seen spikes in past years, businesses have been required to close because of those high COVID numbers," said Cindy Weckwerth, Minneapolis' director of environmental health. "But the goal here is to try and address that in a different way so that businesses can stay open and people can stay safe."
As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the city of Minneapolis has not received any complaints from the public about businesses not complying.
Hark Café, a plant-based restaurant and bakery at 430 N. 1st Ave., adopted a vaccine requirement for staff and customers last August in response to the delta variant, following restaurant practices then common in larger cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
Chef Katherine Pardue said reaction from the public was mixed — overwhelming support from regular customers, and a slew of grievances from people who were typically not.
She recommends businesses broadcast their new policy and procedures as widely as possible: on door signage, over social media, on a recorded phone message. Tone is important, Pardue said. "We don't believe it should be a politicized issue, so we're not treating it as one, just treating it as any other health and safety issue in the food industry, which is all government-dictated."
Apprehension over negative customer reactions was one reason that Jeff Zeitler of Urban Forage at 3016 E. Lake St. decided to shut down his taproom.
"In other cities where this has been tried, there have been incidents of violence against the employees of restaurants and bars that have turned away healthy people without passports. That's not something I'm willing to live with," he wrote in a statement posted Tuesday, asking the public not to take the news out on employees.
On Lake Street, where immigrant-owned restaurants are still recovering from 2020's civil unrest, entrepreneurs are "supportive, some resigned and some very concerned about the cumulative impact to their businesses," said Allison Sharkey, executive director of the Lake Street Council.
"There are concerns about having the staff to enforce it, and concerns about turning away needed customers who are vaccinated but didn't bring proof. Challenges, of course, are multiplied in immigrant and [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities," she said. "The city of Minneapolis could do more to support businesses, including providing information about the details in multiple languages and in different formats including informational forums."
Minneapolis city staff has developed front door signs in multiple languages for businesses, and are working on multilingual back-of-house posters to help employees read vaccination cards, printouts from the state Health Department and the Docket vaccination verification app, as well as differentiate between take-home tests, which are not eligible, and tests done by health professionals, such as Vault Medical Services.
Staff is reaching out to cultural radio stations and meeting with immigrant business associations.
"[Business owners] are just kind of a resilient, hardy group that's used to change, unfortunately," said Enrique Velázquez, Minneapolis' manager of licenses and consumer services. "They're trying to do their best to stay in that fight, stay on point with whatever the latest changes are … keep everybody safe and keep that bottom line also healthy so that at the end of the day, when this is all over, there's still something left to fight for."
Cesia Baires, owner of Abi's Café on Lyndale Avenue, has taken extra steps to keep everyone safe regardless of vaccination status, taking temperatures at the door of those who present proof and educating those who are not vaccinated before turning them away. With the vaccine mandate, about 40% of her customers have stopped coming.
"As far as the business side of it, [the vaccine mandate] is not good," said Baires, who reopened the café 20 days ago at her new location. The unrest after George Floyd's killing previously forced her out of business. "This is another task. A lot of our customers are upset."
In St. Paul, Brian Ingram, who owns several restaurants including Hope Breakfast Bar, took to social media Wednesday morning with a plea to restaurantgoers.
"We're scared, we're scared to death, everybody I'm talking to in the restaurant space is scared. What we're scared about is we can't afford to lose one customer. We can't afford to lose one guest that chooses to dine out and come into our restaurants," Ingram said.
It's been a struggle for restaurants since they were asked to flatten the curve two years ago, Ingram said, and asked people to continue to dine out and support them with kindness.
"Our biggest fear is that our restaurants are going to be politicized, that our restaurants are going to no longer be a place where you gather over a meal and you share stories and love … but are going to become these political playgrounds for people to tell us what we're doing wrong," he said.
Over at Groundswell, a Hamline-Midway coffee shop, the first morning of the mandate went smoothly, reported front-of-house manager Connor Squires.
"I think we've got a pretty good customer base here that's willing to kind of do what they need to do. Anyone who hasn't had their vaccine card or negative test on them has been able to take things to go and people who have wanted to dine in and have had their vaccine card haven't had a problem with showing it to us and providing us with proof of vaccination," he said.
The number of people sitting down to have their coffee hasn't changed from recent weeks, said Squires.
"Having confusion with customers if one restaurant is enforcing it differently than another restaurant, that's the one kind of problem we're worried about or can foresee happening in the future," he said.
Staff writer Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.