Contra Costa Restaurants Brace to Police the Public with COVID Vaccine Checks

September 22, 2021

This article originally produced and appeared on The Mercury News

Contra Costa health officials: our goal isn’t to punish defiant businesses

Some followers of Hazy Barbecue’s Instagram didn’t take kindly to an announcement Tuesday that the Danville restaurant would begin checking indoor diners for proof that they got their COVID-19 shots.

The post was immediately flooded with so much vitriol that the restaurant shut down the comments altogether.

It was a rough start to Hazy Barbecue’s attempt to comply with Contra Costa County’s latest health order, which took effect Wednesday.

Meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 fueled by the delta variant since early summer, the health order requires anyone who enters restaurants, bars and gyms to prove they have been vaccinated. The order broadly applies to any indoor businesses where people breathe heavily from exercise or remove their masks to drink or eat.

Contra Costa is the first county in the Bay Area outside San Francisco to enact the “vaccine passports” policy, which also went into effect last month in Berkeley.

“People need to know it’s not our fault that regulations change and that we have to go with it,” said Brendan Harrigan, a co-owner of the Hartz Avenue eatery in downtown Danville.

Customers who refuse to show proof of vaccination are supposed to either be directed to a business’ outdoor area or told to leave.

On Wednesday afternoon, the new health order already was complicating a Danville couple’s plans for an early dinner. Doug Thompson said he is fully vaccinated but will have to sit outdoors with his wife, who had left her phone and vaccination card at home.

Thompson empathized with restaurant owners, saying they would now be forced to play hall monitor. And he was skeptical that the order would serve its intended effect at the end of the day.

“I think anti-vaxxers are going to continue to be anti-vaxxers, even though it may be inconvenient,” Thompson said. “I don’t think it’s going to change anyone’s mind … it may change a few, but not many.”

One restaurant manager said early Wednesday he was gearing up for the difficult conversations he expected to have a few hours later with patrons who might give him guff if turned away.

“We want to comply, but we don’t feel like it’s our responsibility to police the public,” said Patrick Kelly, who manages food and cocktail spot Norm’s Place in Danville.

Kelly said customers who dine indoors at Norm’s Place — which sports an American flag above the bar — have complied with past health rules, such as mask mandates, without giving the staff grief.

While the latest COVID-19 surge appears to be waning, 126 people currently are hospitalized with the virus in Contra Costa, and 44 of them have been admitted to the ICU, according to county data.

The county has seen eight COVID-19 deaths so far in September. Of 631 deaths since December — when vaccines first became available — 95% were people who didn’t get COVID-19 shots.

Contra Costa Health Services, which announced the new order last week, said its main focus isn’t to crack down on businesses that don’t comply but instead to educate them and the community about safe practices.

“That said, enforcement for not complying with this health order are the same as for not complying with other health orders,” agency spokesman Will Harper said in an email. “The county will investigate complaints about businesses not following health orders and act accordingly.”

Maria Gonzalez, a worker at Valley Medlyn’s cafe, said a pair of customers initially refused to show proof of vaccination Wednesday but reluctantly did so after learning of the new policy. Still, she worries that other interactions with customers may get more confrontational.

The outdoor patio at Revel Kitchen and Bar is large enough that owner Curtis deCarion hopes it will accommodate those who aren’t vaccinated or decline to prove they are.

As a business owner, deCarion said, he would “never want to turn away customers,” though it’s a reality he’s preparing to deal with.
“We understand why we have to do it,” deCarion said. “We’re not really excited about it, but we’re doing what we have to these days in order to survive.”

A quiet Wednesday afternoon saw only a few patrons seated at Hazy Barbecue — the calm before an expected storm of customers during dinner hours. As Harrigan, the restaurant’s co-owner, was being interviewed, he noticed that some patrons at an indoor table had not yet shown his staff their vaccination cards.
Dealing with them would be the next item on his to-do list, Harrigan said.