Tribulations befall Brooklyn businesses as vaccine mandate settles in

vaccine mandate
A protestor holds an anti-vaccine mandate sign.
REUTERS/Stephen Zenner

Rowdy customers, businesses flouting mandates, and even outright brawls — that’s what’s befallen Brooklyn’s bars, restaurants, gyms, and theaters in the two weeks that the city’s vaccine mandate for indoor venues has been in effect. 

At Juliana’s Pizza under the Brooklyn Bridge, a video of an unvaccinated man confronting staff members about their vaccine policy was widely disseminated on social media, showing the science-skeptic angrily yelling at employees on Sept. 14, just one day into enforcement of the new regulation.

“So you’re refusing to serve us? Are you refusing to serve us,” the man, who goes by the name Ray Velez online, asks.

When the staff member states that he must have a vaccine card to dine inside, Velez prods further. 

“So you’re going to enforce segregation?” he asks. “Because we just told you that we’re religiously exempt.”

Matthew Grogan, company partner at Julianna’s, says the employees were simply following the New York City vaccine mandate that those who plan on dining indoors must have proof of vaccination and in some cases, an ID. 

“We’re simply following the mandate that the city put on us and all the other restaurant venues,” said Grogan, who added that the city did not authorize the restaurant to accommodate exemptions regarding religion.

“The only accommodation[s] that the city is permitting us to offer guests that are unable to provide proof of vaccination is to order takeout or eat outside,” said Grogan. “They’re not allowing any other exceptions for religion… they made that crystal clear in their communication with the restaurant.”

While the city’s vaccine mandate in restaurants does not provide for a religious exemption, the city’s Human Rights Commission has put out guidance noting that operators must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who claim religious exemptions. The same does not exist for customers.

In Manhattan, a brawl at Carmine’s on the Upper West Side over proof-of-vaccination led to the arrests of three Texas women, and a hostess being sent to the hospital. Both parties are now claiming contradictory theories of the event.

In Bay Ridge, several local businesses are openly flouting the mandate, most notably Pasticceria Rocco, a bakery on Fourth Avenue and 94th Street that also has a location in Greenwich Village. Rocco’s last month hung a sign in their window reading, “We do not discriminate against ANY customer based on sex, gender, race, creed, age, vaccinated or unvaccinated. All customers who wish to patronize are welcome in our establishment.”

Rocco’s is also one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio, brought by a number of restaurants organized under the umbrella of the Independent Restaurant Owners Association Rescue (IROAR), aiming to squelch the mandate which it claims is arbitrary and in violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

A judge rejected IROAR’s request for an injunction to stop the mandate on Sept. 10, which allowed it to go into effect. The judge has not yet issued a final ruling.

A massive sign decrying the mandate hangs outside of Pasticceria Rocco.Photo by Paul Frangipane

Rocco’s continues to hang the sign though, as do other businesses, which are being encouraged by local Republican politicians including City Council candidate Brian Fox, who has handed out smaller versions of the antivax poster seen at Rocco’s to other Bay Ridge businesses.

Kensington’s Korner Pizza, a half-century-old pizzeria on Church Avenue at East Third Street, is one such business displaying the sign in their window, and on their Instagram page. Reached by phone, a manager at the store said it has stopped doing indoor dining since the implementation of the mandate, limiting business to only takeout and delivery, rather than ask for proof of vaccination at the door.

“We have to get somebody to stand at the door,” the manager said. “That’s not coming out of my pocket. If the city wants that they should be supplying some money, send some money and they can be at the door. We did it on our own, because we’re not checking to see if people are vaccinated or not.”

The manager, who declined to provide her name, said that the pizzeria is still getting walk-ins from regulars but that they’re losing out on potential customers who want to eat inside.

“Not that anybody’s against what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s just that there’s no indoor dining. So it’s either stay outside or to-go. Not that I have any customers that are against it. The customers are saying also, it’s not right, everybody should have their own rights on where they should eat and what they should do. Everything’s just upside-down.”

Asked by Brooklyn Paper earlier this month if the city intends to make a searchable database of businesses that have faced sanction for not complying with the mandate, Mayor de Blasio said no, claiming that the focus is on compliance and not punishment.

“We’re not trying to do anything, but get people compliant,” Hizzoner said on Sept. 15. “And what we’re hearing overwhelmingly is positive compliance.”

A battle brews in Bay Ridge

As a result, some local groups have taken matters into their own hands.

The hosts of the hyperlocal podcast Radio Free Bay Ridge, for example, have been canvassing the neighborhood recording what businesses are not complying, and compiling them in a spreadsheet containing both those publicly flouting the mandate and those which are maintaining their ground to enforce the new rule, even in the face of unruly customers.

Dan Hettiex, one of the hosts of Radio Free Bay Ridge, said the group is only putting businesses on the list if they are putting out public statements saying they are flouting the mandate, or if the anti-vax sign is seen by a tipster in their window.

“I fear our neighborhood’s reputation as a safe place to eat and shop is going to be dragged through the mud,” he said. “The city really needs to step that up.”

Hettiex suggested the city should incorporate whether a restaurant is antivax into their Health Department letter grade as one possibility. He also criticized Fox and fellow Bay Ridge Republican, US Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (who has publicly supported the Rocco’s lawsuit), as politicizing public health.

“Public health should never be a political issue,” he said. “Bottom line.”

In response, Fox’s campaign sent out an email last week calling Hettiex’s spreadsheet a “boycott hit list,” and called for Councilmember Justin Brannan to remove Hettiex from Community Board 10. In a statement to Brooklyn Paper, he again criticized both Brannan and Hettiex, arguing they are “punishing” and “attacking” Bay Ridge small businesses.

“Justin Brannan is arbitrarily punishing small Brooklyn businesses, and it’s wrong,” Fox said, through a spokesperson. “Science shows that vaccinated New Yorkers are just as capable of carrying viral loads into restaurants as unvaccinated people, making this mandate both senseless and punitive. His own Community Board 10 appointee, Dan Hetteix, is now attacking local businesses, without proof, suggesting that they’re not properly enforcing the mandate and urging public boycotts. Mr. Brannan’s refusal to remove him from the Board tells local business owners everything they need to know about his priorities as a councilman.”

Brannan, in a statement, argued that the majority of the public is in support of the mandate (a Siena poll this month found 66 percent of respondents supported the mandate at businesses like restaurants, versus 32 percent opposed and 2 percent with no opinion) and that it’s important for public health and safety. He also acknowledged the challenges it brings to small businesses.

“The overwhelming majority of the public supports the vaccine mandate, especially because it protects the lives of our neighbors and seniors. There is a very serious disconnect between reality and Facebook,” Brannan said in an emailed statement. “I completely understand why small business owners already feel overburdened beyond belief, and now they’re being forced to be the front line enforcement police yet again. That’s why, now more than ever, small businesses need our support, not our ire. We should commending the majority of local businesses that are doing the right thing in taking the health and safety of their customers and employees seriously — something the vast majority of the public supports.”

Through a spokesperson, Malliotakis stressed a need for vaccine “encouragement” as opposed to enforcement.

“I am vaccinated, my family is vaccinated, my office has sponsored several pop-up clinics and we helped well over 650 constituents make vaccine appointments,” she said. “However, [the mayor’s] vaccine mandate is a government overreach and places an undue burden on small businesses to be the ‘vaccine police.’ We should continue to encourage the vaccine but not mandate it.”

Some businesses want more support

Politics aside, Randy Peers, CEO and president of the Brooklyn Chambers of Commerce, believes the city needs to do more to support businesses burdened with enforcing the mandate, while still fighting to buoy themselves to the other side of the pandemic.

“It’s not fair to our small businesses,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to be the vaccine police. They shouldn’t have to spend additional money to ensure that customers are compliant. It’s not their job — it’s not their role. We like to believe that businesses can bear the brunt of all these policies that don’t make a lot of sense at the end of day, but businesses shouldn’t be put in that uncomfortable position.”

Peers added that other businesses like catering halls have had to bear an invisible brunt of the mandate, noting one business, El Caribe Caterers in Mill Basin, lost six bookings just after the mandate was announced.

“We focus quite a bit on restaurants but think about catering halls,” Peers said. “Think about how many bookings that catering halls have lost because NYC has this mandate but other areas, other counties don’t have this mandate.”

El Caribe Caterers could not be reached for comment. Eight other catering companies across the borough also could not be reached.

Still, while various Brooklyn business owners have vocally opposed the mandate, others have expressed enthusiasm about the edict — which, for some, hasn’t changed a thing.

“I had always required members to show proof of vaccination so they can work out without a mask on,” Michael Carlin, co-owner of Slope Fitness, previously told Brooklyn Paper. “Although our politicians said you can go on the honor system … I never did that.”

Caleb McMahon, a co-owner of the bar Salem’s Hour in Prospect Lefferts Gardens believes that checking people’s vaccination status has made his staff and patrons feel safer dining and drinking inside. The owner of the Nostrand Avenue pub also instituted the rule before it was mandated, and says many patrons have thanked him for it.

“A vast majority of people are not only fine with it, but are grateful,” McMahon said. “They have reinforced that this makes them feel safer coming in, and that they wish everywhere was as vigilant.”

The rule officially went into effect on Aug. 16, with the Department of Health authorized to start fining non-compliant businesses as of Sept. 13. To ensure enforcement, nearly 600 people have been hired by the city to check in on businesses and canvass them with information about the vaccine requirement.

The mayor has continued to cite rising vaccination rates as proof that the business mandate — and others of its kind — will be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“I am absolutely certain this is going to motivate a lot of people to get vaccinated,” the mayor said earlier this summer.

Meanwhile, the mandate’s impact has been “all over the map,” according to Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.

“For some restaurants it hasn’t been an issue and for some customers there is a level of comfort knowing that everyone is vaccinated,” he said, “while for other restaurants it’s been the cause of a loss of business and conflicts resulting from having to turn customers away at the door.”

As of Sept. 20, the city had not yet issued any fines for non-complying businesses.

Additional reporting by Ben Verde