The San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance is now recommending that local bars check for proof of vaccination before allowing guests inside. As anticipated with a flurry of headlines last week, the alliance finally put out an official statement Monday morning. Starting Thursday, July 29, participating bars may ask customers to show proof of vaccination or a 72-hour negative COVID test if they’d like to sit indoors, although they may still seat unvaccinated guests outside and in parklets, joining a few front-running restaurants and bars that have already started doing so in the Bay Area.
To be clear, this is not a government mandate, it’s only a recommendation from a local industry group. But the next time you walk into a bar in San Francisco, there’s a possibility you might get asked to show both your ID and your vaccination card if you want to have a cocktail and stay warm.
“Look, this is what we need to do to protect our staff and families,” says Ben Bleiman, president of the SF Bar Owner Alliance, and owner of Soda Popinksi’s and Teeth bars. “The data doesn’t lie. I don’t care what Joe Rogan says. People who are unvaccinated are much, much more likely to hurt somebody who is vaccinated.” As a bar owner, Bleiman says he’s exercising his privilege to not mince words. “If you believe that you know more than the top medical and scientific experts in the world, then you are a selfish, narcissistic prick ... Fuck right off. Get out of our bars.”
Despite firing up a debate across media and social media, it remains to be seen how many local bars will actually participate. The numbers were slightly conflated across sources last week, so to be clear: The SF Bar Owner Alliance represents nearly 500 bar owners, but closer to 300 actual bars. Bleiman says a survey indicated about 85 percent of that group were generally in favor of requesting proof of vaccination, and Bleiman hopes the majority will participate. But it’s ultimately up to the bars to decide if and how they put it into practice. And there are considerations on both sides.
With the delta variant spreading, COVID cases are again surging in the San Francisco Bay Area: Case rates have reached the level they were at in January, and if the original color-tier system were still in play, we would be back in the purple and shutting down indoor dining. Bleiman says that for bars, he’s hearing anecdotally that even fully vaccinated staff members are now getting sick, resulting in rolling temporary closures across the city.
But in practice, requiring proof of vaccination puts another burden on staff. Dzu Nguyen is the general manager of Horsefeather on Divisadero, which isn’t a member of the alliance but is considering following the recommendation. “It’s going to stay on our radar, but these are challenging times and uncharted waters,” Nguyen says. “We’re going to carefully consider any notion of turning customers away.” Requiring proof of vaccination would mean retraining hosts, bartenders, and servers on checking in guests, and in addition to their full COVID spiel, it’s one more thing to talk about. They would have to check cards, photos of cards, or QR codes. And deal with customers who leave cards at home, or even potentially try to show a fake.
Of course, the vast majority of San Franciscans are fully vaccinated, and every bartender that Eater SF spoke with for this story had confidence the majority of guests would proudly wave their vaccination cards, but in nightlife there are always going to be a few angry bar-goers. “There would be some guest mitigation involved,” Nguyen says diplomatically.
The alliance points out that bars are uniquely suited to check vaccination cards at the door, and it remains to be seen if restaurants will follow suit. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), the local restaurant lobbying group, released a statement in support of the SF Bar Owner Alliance’s stance, but said it’s a more complicated situation for restaurants: “Verifying vaccination status has, and continues to present many challenges for restaurants.” Mayor London Breed tweeted in support, and took the opportunity to urge all San Franciscans to go get vaccinated.
It’ll be interesting to see how many bars decide to participate, as well as how exactly they put it into practice. Regardless, the SF Bar Alliance contends, “Every unvaccinated person that doesn’t set foot indoors is a victory,” Bleiman says. “Whether it’s just a sign outside, or it’s a giant security guard asking for vax cards, every bit counts.”