What it’s like dining out in LA now that some restaurants require proof of vaccination

Aug 9, 2021

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“Can I see your proof of vaccination?”

That was a request I envisioned fielding at an airline check-in desk or while going through customs and immigration on an international trip. Not coming from the host at a neighborhood restaurant my partner and I had decided to drop into for brunch at the last minute last month.

However, as the delta variant has fueled yet another disturbing COVID-19 surge in Los Angeles, where I’m based, the county has issued health orders requiring “the use of face masks in all indoor public settings, including businesses.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, many restaurants around town are starting to (or plan to) take those recommendations a step further and ask patrons to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative test if they wish to dine indoors. The dining site Eater is already keeping a running list of LA restaurants that have these rules in place, or that will implement them soon. Eateries in other large cities around the country including New York City and Philadelphia are undertaking similar measures.

But that was all news to me a couple of weekends ago as I fumbled for my phone and flipped through my photo album to find the picture I’d taken of my vaccination card a few months prior. I flashed it in the host’s direction, and we were on our way to the table within moments.

Although everything else about the dining experience that day felt surprisingly normal, as I reflected on it later, I found my reactions were more mixed than I initially thought they would be.

Proof positive

First, let me say that my impression, both of the new rules and the way they were handled in this particular case, was generally positive.

It was reassuring to know that everyone else dining around me either had a recent negative test or was fully vaccinated. While not completely foolproof against contracting COVID-19 during something as mundane as a meal out, it certainly narrowed the chances of doing so.

The way the host handled it in this particular case was also pretty congenial. He simply explained the rules,  asked to see a photo of our vaccination cards, looked at our phones and that was that. No interrogation, no judgment, no fuss.

Muddled messaging

That said, there are certainly some messaging and process challenges restaurants are sure to face, aside from potential pitfalls when dealing with disaffected patrons.

First, restaurants are going to have to deliver warnings to potential diners in a number of new ways. Some are posting their policies on their own websites as well as updating their profiles on reservations sites like OpenTable. Many are also notifying folks via text with reminders of the new requirements shortly before their meal. But even then, it might be confusing as to what proof will be accepted, and where people might or might not be able to dine within a certain restaurant’s facilities.

Second, it’s bound to be confusing during the meal itself — what if you have to walk through the indoor portion of a restaurant in order to get to the outdoor area? Will you be allowed to do so if you are unvaccinated? What about people who need to use the restrooms during meals? Masking requirements compensate for some of this, but are restaurants really asking their staff to be the mask police and stop any patron who hops up to use the bathroom and forgets their mask to go back to their table and put it on?

Verification is another huge potential issue. Although I showed a photo of my real vaccination card, to be truly effective, any rule like this would also have to confirm the carrier’s identity. I could have shown a picture of any vaccination card, even one I’d just taken a screenshot of from the web. On the other hand, the lax look made me feel better about any privacy concerns since the restaurant host couldn’t have made out many details beyond my name and date of vaccination, and he only glanced at those cursorily.

Then there’s the expense of having to take a test every time you want to eat out but remain unvaccinated. It’s certainly not the most prohibitive thing in the world, but it’s bound to be a deterrent to a lot of people. Perhaps that’s the point, though.

Personally, I’m opting only to dine outside for the time being, so these new requirements might not even have much of an impact on my experience going forward. But on the off chance that I can only snag an indoor table somewhere, I am curious to see how all this will play out.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

An unvaccinated person’s response

I reached out to a person who remains unvaccinated, not by choice but due to an underlying medical condition, about what they might do if asked for proof of vaccination. “The government assumes everyone can be safely vaccinated,” said my source. “I cannot. I am careful, use a mask and dine outside.”

“To my knowledge, no official waiver form is available,” they continued. “I don’t know if a notarized letter from my doctor would be sufficient. … If I was told I could not dine, I would try to explain.” That’s putting quite a lot of onus on someone to detail their medical background.

That said, they could always go the testing route if willing to take the risk of dining indoors, or just make sure to reserve outdoor seating. “I would choose — and do because I can’t be vaccinated — to eat outside,” they said.

As for testing, “I do not want to have to decide in advance (except for special occasions, or restaurants where I would need reservations ahead of time) when I’m eating at a restaurant and schedule a test for it. That would be really unrealistic and take away all spontaneity.”

Of course, if you want to secure an outdoor table, you would probably have to reserve in advance anyway, so I’m not sure how much spontaneity there’s going to be in this person’s dining-out future.

A restaurateur’s perspective

I also wanted to get the perspective of a restaurant operator, so I contacted Joel Dixon, president of the Rustic Canyon Family, which includes establishments such as Rustic Canyon itself, Cassia and Birdie G’s here in LA.

Starting Aug. 16, the restaurant group, which already requires employees to be vaccinated, will launch its own set of policies for indoor dining. The new rules are as follows:

  • Guests must show proof of full vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours of dining indoors.
  • If you’re not vaccinated or cannot provide a negative result, you can still dine outdoors.
  • Proof of vaccination can include a hard copy or a photo of your vaccination card, an email or text message with confirmation of your vaccination, or use of California’s digital vaccine record.
  • Regardless of negative test results or vaccination status, the restaurants will require all guests to wear a face mask indoors whenever they are not actively eating or drinking and asks that those who are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated also do so outdoors.

To make sure this all runs as smoothly as possible, the restaurants have posted announcements on their sites with these new rules and they are being posted on social media channels, too. Dixon says that guests who make reservations through various booking systems for indoor dining will receive SMS notifications about these terms.

Dixon told me that these new conditions were aimed at creating a safe environment, both for customers and employees. “With delta and the cases going back up,” he said, “it’s important as we have indoor dining now to ensure that we are creating a safe space inside of our restaurants. So by requiring proof of vaccine or a negative test result within 72 hours of their dining experience, we believe that is the safest thing to move into at this point.”

Dixon brushed off the idea of anyone conspiring to get around the rules. “A lot of people who are anti-vax are not going to go through the work to falsify vaccine records so they can eat at a place that’s requiring proof of vaccination,” he said, “so I don’t see a huge risk there.”

He does worry slightly about resistance from diners, noting, “Every time we do something new, there’s always concerns of customer retaliation. We still get pushback from people having to just wear masks. … Any time we roll something out, I think that there is some hesitation and fear. But I think everyone agrees it’s for the best to create a safe environment for everyone.”

Above all, and after the most challenging period restaurants have faced in living memory, the point is not to keep people out, Dixon said. “We’re not trying to exclude anyone. That’s why we have the test option to allow for people to experience indoor dining in a safe way. We just want to make sure we’re warm and welcoming.”

And if all else fails, he said, “We have a fantastic outdoor dining space at every single one of our restaurants that they can participate in with no burden on them.”

Bottom line

As with so much related to the coronavirus, this situation is bound to remain unstable and challenging for some time to come. While restaurants grapple with creating and imposing new rules that ensure the safety of their staff and patrons, diners will have to contend with whether to present their credentials to dine indoors. It may make some feel safer knowing everyone has been either vaccinated or tested recently, or to opt for alfresco tables when possible. Personally, I’ve favorited the photo of my vaccination card on the off chance I’ll have to use it again. However, I plan to eat outside only for the foreseeable future. Luckily, that’s possible year-round here in LA, whereas those in other cities might not have the option after summer ends.

Featured photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy.

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