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Vaccine Mandates Are A Lose-Lose For Frontline Restaurant Workers, Says Paytronix CEO

For a few months in late spring and early summer, the future was looking bright for restaurants. Newly vaccinated consumers were coming back for indoor dining, even as digital sales remained elevated. Yelp recorded record-high seatings, and restaurant spending was increasing each month.

Now, as things take a turn for the worse for everyone, restaurants are feeling the impact of the resurgence of contagion concerns. The more contagious Delta variant is spreading quickly — the seven-day average of daily new COVID cases for the first week of August was 2.6 times higher than the average for the first week of July, and cases are on the rise.

Read more: Restaurant Roundup: COVID Concerns Pervade As Diners Return To Bars

See also: Delta Variant Triggers Slowdown On Great Reopening

Businesses and lawmakers alike are struggling to figure out how best to respond to the worsening situation. Andrew Robbins, co-founder and CEO at SaaS customer experience management (CXM) solutions provider Paytronix, spoke with Karen Webster about what the Delta variant means for restaurants.

“Restaurants right now are in a difficult position where they’re trying to make up the rules themselves, because there really isn’t great or uniform guidance for what they should do,” he said. “When a municipality like San Francisco or New York takes the lead, that will take a lot of pressure off the restaurants, because then they’re just implementing something. They’re implementing a mandate for how to behave, and it’s consistent across restaurants.”

Also read: Mounting Pressure To Push The Vaccine While Protecting SMBs

In July, San Francisco bar and restaurant owners began requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result to be served, and in August, New York City announced that people will need to show that they have received at least a single dose of the vaccine to dine indoors.

A Sticky Situation

The contagion crisis also connects to the other major hurdle facing restaurants right now: the staffing shortage.  Robbins pointed out that the practice of requiring proof of vaccine from employees can be a lose-lose for restaurant workers.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” said Robbins, discussing the current climate among restaurant operators. “There’s anxiety from putting your frontline staff at risk, and you can put them at risk because of the Delta variant. You can also put them at risk trying to enforce this stuff.”

When waitstaff are required to check for proof of vaccination, it can force them into some difficult and potentially threatening conversations, with vaccine skeptics pushing back against these measures. While this is not a new phenomenon — mask mandates have been similarly fraught since they were first imposed — vaccine issues can be especially heated.

While these conversations can be tricky whether or not there is a legal mandate, they are even more risky in areas where state and local lawmakers are leaving matters to restaurants’ discretion.

“It’s not like carding someone at the bar for a beer … [where] you’re just enforcing the law,” said Robbins. “You’re making up the law and that is a really difficult situation for people to be in.”

The consequences of either side of this tradeoff, requiring vaccinations or not, can at times be enough to push restaurant workers to leave their jobs or to prevent people from applying in the first place.

Table Talk

Especially hard-hit by the rise in case numbers are table-service restaurants, which even when they offer off-premises ordering options tend to rely on on-premises dining.

“QSRs can have drive-thru lanes, curbside,” said Robbins. “How do you do that for table service?”

He noted that improving air handling systems can “make people feel more comfortable” now, with both the Delta variant and with other illnesses. Many restaurants are also leaning on QR code ordering to reduce contact with waitstaff, and some are even switching to a model in which diners pick up their own food from a designated window. Additionally, some restaurants are requiring reservations and mandating proof of vaccine at this online reservation stage, which can help avoid tricky confrontations.

One way that table-service restaurants are supplementing their dine-in revenue as the channel is increasingly put in jeopardy by the virus is through ghost kitchens. Robbins cited the example of a location near him: Somerville, Massachusetts-based Italian table-service chain Bertucci’s, which is running three or four virtual brands out of its kitchen.

“They’re giving up on getting people to come in,” he explained. “And they’re creating more virtual brands, and they’re ghost kitchen-ing their own kitchens.”

The Back-To-School Bump

Robbins predicts that we are about to see significant movement both in proof-of-vaccination deliberations and in the restaurant labor pool. Children’s return to school will force lawmakers to make decisions regarding mask mandates for children and proof of vaccine for teachers, which in turn could influence regulations for the restaurant industry.

He added that the return to in-person schooling could “free up a bunch of people in the labor force,” since it will provide children with six or seven hours a day of adult supervision, leaving parents more available to work.

Ultimately, Robbins believes that, even in the face of these contagion concerns and labor challenges, the traditional table-service dining occasion will prove resilient.

“People crave social interaction — they want to get back,” he said. “Restaurants really are the first place they’ve gone back to for social interactions … So people will still go back to restaurants.”

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