Why aren’t airport lounges and restaurants in New York enforcing the city’s vaccine mandate?

Oct 15, 2021

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On Aug. 17, the mayor of New York announced the Key to NYC program, which is essentially a vaccine mandate for anyone dining indoors, using a gym or attending indoor entertainment venues in one of the city’s five boroughs.

After a four-week-long soft launch, the requirement officially took effect on Sept. 13. Residents, tourists and employees alike must present their vaccination certificates to enjoy many of the city’s top attractions.

Throughout my experience around the city, compliance with the new mandate has been nearly 100%. I’ve been asked to provide my vaccination card before entering any restaurant, comedy show or fitness class I’ve taken.

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But, I also spend a good amount of time transiting the region’s major airports, and I haven’t once been asked for my vaccination card to enter airport lounges or restaurants where indoor dining is allowed, including during stops at both Terminal B and D in LaGuardia, as well as visits to Terminal 1, 5, and 8 at JFK.

Neither have my high-flying colleagues.

TPG executive editor Scott Mayerowitz visited three lounges at JFK’s Terminal 4 on Sept. 28 to test out the latest COIVD-19 protocols. Check-in agents at the American Express Centurion Lounge, the Delta Sky Club and the Wingtips Lounge – part of Priority Pass – never asked for proof of vaccination. In fact, the only extra step was at Wingtips, where a temperature check occurred.

Temperature scanner at the Wingtips Lounge (Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

Senior travel reporter Victoria Walker visited the American Express Centurion Lounge in LaGuardia’s Terminal B on Oct. 8, and no vaccine card was required for entry. (Interestingly, she was asked to present proof of vaccination to enter the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge on Oct. 4 in the Moynihan Train Hall in downtown Manhattan.)

In fact, at both JFK and LaGuardia, the Key to NYC program doesn’t seem to exist, despite the mandate that would theoretically apply to indoor dining locations at both airports.

On its website, the New York City Department of Health lists the requirements for the Key to NYC program, along with a detailed FAQ page. In it, there’s a question stating “what types of food service establishments are required to comply with the program?”

The answer goes on to explain the requirements: any establishment located in New York City that’s issued a grade by the Health Department for its cleanliness and hygiene and that also offers indoor dining or beverage service.

Well, a quick search of the city’s restaurant grading database shows that nearly every lounge and dining establishment in both JFK and LaGuardia should be required to comply with the mandate.

Both airports are located in Queens, New York, and nearly every lounge, restaurant and food court offers indoor dining and has been issued a grade by the Health Department.

For instance, I flew down to Atlanta this week for a first-look tour of Delta’s retrofitted Airbus A330. I popped into the Sky Club in Terminal D — which gets an “A” for sanitation — and I wasn’t asked to present my vaccine card, despite plenty of travelers eating indoors and crowding the bar.

Food selection in Delta’s LGA Sky Club (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The same was true the previous week in the Air France lounge in JFK’s Terminal 1. And at the Cibo Express food court in JetBlue’s Terminal 5. (Both of which also received “A” grades.)

Puzzled, I went back to the Department of Health’s guidebook for the Key to NYC program and searched for a carve-out for airports or travel providers. Not only couldn’t I find one, but it was clear the city is enforcing the mandate in other large places of gathering, including “hotels, colleges and universities and malls.”

Perhaps I was missing something, so I sent a press inquiry to the media inbox at the Department of Health on Sept. 28. Essentially, I wanted to learn if airports were excluded from the Key to NYC mandate.

My first and second emails and phone calls from late September went unreturned, and only on the third try earlier this week on Oct. 13 did I receive a response from a spokesperson saying “checking and will get back when possible.” I also reached out to the Port Authority, which oversees the region’s airports.

Well, as of press time, I still haven’t heard back from the city or the Port Authority, and the mystery remains unsolved. Ultimately, the decision about whether this applies to the region’s airport rests with the city’s Health Department and the mayor’s office.

Until then, if you’re planning a trip to New York — be sure to pack your vaccine card, but keep it stowed securely in your belongings while transiting through the region’s airports.

Featured photo of the new LGA Terminal B by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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