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LI restaurants, bars, theaters push back on state's vaccine suggestion

Patrons dine at Toast Coffeehouse in Patchogue on

Patrons dine at Toast Coffeehouse in Patchogue on Saturday. Credit: John Roca

This story was reported by Daniel Bubbeo, Rafer Guzman, Erica Marcus, Tory Parrish and Craig Schneider. It was written by Schneider.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's push to have restaurants, bars and theaters serve only vaccinated people is receiving strong pushback, with some owners saying such a move could turn off patrons and transform their workers into public-health enforcers.

People entering Toast Coffeehouse in Patchogue will not be asked their vaccination status, said manager Melissa Reinheimer.

"We're not looking to alienate anyone," Reinheimer said Saturday. "We don't think it's right to tell people what to do due to their medical choice. We welcome vaccinated and unvaccinated."

Cuomo made the suggestion — it is not a mandate — on Thursday, saying these businesses can help fight the growing spread of the highly infectious delta variant. The move, he argued, could help businesses because people would want to go to a place they know is safe.

The governor's request reflects a shifting pandemic landscape, driven by dispiriting setbacks in the battle to stamp out COVID-19. When vaccines became available in the spring, restaurants that had been decimated by pandemic closures and restrictions saw a bounce in business. But the delta variant is rapidly escalating the spread of the virus, infecting even some vaccinated people.

Long Island, which saw daily cases drop below 100 in June, crested 500 cases Friday, according to state figures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in regions seeing increased infections.

Some employers, government agencies, institutions, restaurants and entertainment venues are starting to mandate COVID-19 vaccines. Newsday could not find a Long Island restaurant, bar or theater that will require both customers and workers to be vaccinated, though they may be out there.

Ettore Pennacchia, the owner and chef at Touch of Venice restaurant in Cutchogue, said enforcing such a rule could be a nightmare.

"It's very hard to do. We would have to ask to see people's [vaccination] papers before they come in," Pennacchia said. "It could cause more trouble. It could start causing a rift between workers and people."

Pennacchia said he told all his employees they must be vaccinated, and virtually all had been. He also said he worried the spike in variant infections would make diners more leery of eating out.

Kurt Bohlsen is an owner in the Bohlsen Restaurant Group (BRG), which operates Tellers in Islip, H2O in Smithtown and Prime in Huntington.

In the spring, Bohlsen said he and his brother-business partner Michael had "toyed with the idea" of requiring employees to be vaccinated but had "a lot of pushback."

His company had offered free weekly coronavirus testing to employees until July 4. This week’s updated CDC guidelines have given him more to consider, he said.

"We are talking about all of it," Bohlsen said, "whether it’s requiring vaccines, incentivizing employee vaccination, or starting to do on-site employee testing again."

Requiring diners to be vaccinated also is under consideration, Bohlsen said, but he is mindful that such a decision might both limit their customer base and antagonize diners who are wary or anti-vaccine.

Requiring patrons to be vaccinated is a big ask, said Alex Susskind, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University in Ithaca.

There is a long history of vaccines being required for participation in events and programs, such as playing sports and attending schools, he noted. But they haven’t spurred as much debate and political polarization as the COVID-19 vaccine, Susskind said.

"Any restriction that you put in place could have the potential for negative impact," said Susskind.

But, he added, if owners frame it as they are trying to stay open and beat this virus, it could help convey the importance of the move, said Susskind.

Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said many operators were still digging out from pandemic-related losses and could not stand another step back.

"Government cannot make things harder yet again," Fleischut said.

Long Island’s performing arts centers are expected to return to hosting theater productions and other live events in September. None have announced plans to require visitors be vaccinated to attend a show.

"Right now, there are no mandates telling us to do that, so we’re going on the honor system and asking people who are not vaccinated to wear a mask," said Jeffrey Sanzel, executive artistic director of Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

There is however, a vaccination policy in place for the theater’s employees and volunteers, he said.

Broadway theatergoers will be required to be vaccinated and wear masks to attend performances, owners said.

National movie theater chains such as Regal Theaters are not requiring ticket holders to be vaccinated to visit Long Island locations.

While moviegoing patrons also aren’t required to show proof of vaccination at the Malverne Cinema and Art Center, they are encouraged to wear masks, particularly in the lobby, said Anne Stampfel, who owns the venue with her husband, Henry.

"We don’t throw anybody out if they refuse," said Stampfel. "And we always have extras to give away."

The Stampfels have hit upon an additional safety measure: Handing out yellow caution tape. Moviegoers are instructed to put the tape on the seat in front of them to prevent others from sitting too close.

When the film is over, they leave tape on their own seat as well. That way, the Stampfels know exactly where to spray with an alcohol-based sanitizer after every screening. They also spray down every auditorium entirely at the end of the night.

"We’re going through caution tape like crazy," Stampfel said.

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