Atlanta restaurant to customers: No vaccination, no service

This isn’t the first business to require proof of vaccination upon entering, but there are so few out there that do so that it qualifies as news even in a major city when it happens.

As recently as two months ago, the logic of “no vax, no service” was hard to grasp. If the business owner and staff were immunized then they had nothing to fear from an unvaccinated person being in their presence. The same was true for any vaccinated customers, of course. The only people at risk from unvaccinated patrons were other unvaccinated patrons. They assumed that risk by declining to get their shots, so why should a business refuse to serve them? They weren’t hurting anyone but themselves.

That calculus has changed with the emergence of the Delta variant. Because it’s so contagious, the vaccinated are getting infected now too. Rarely do they become seriously ill when they are, but an outbreak of COVID at a business can grind operations to a halt. That’s what happened at Argosy, the Atlanta restaurant that’s now requiring evidence of vaccination from customers.

The decision came after four Argosy employees — co-owner Armando Celentano and three bartenders — recently tested positive for COVID-19. Each had been vaccinated, marking them as “breakthrough” cases. Celentano was tested after feeling ill. His positive result prompted a round of companywide testing. “We think we were exposed at different times to unvaccinated people,” he said.

“It is a question of quality of life and safety for my staff and guests,” said Celentano, who is currently quarantining and experiencing mild symptoms that include a lack of smell, intermittent cough, lethargy, sinus pressure and swollen, light-sensitive eyes. “It’s a privately owned, small business and I have to do what I think is right to protect the people who rely on me to make a living.”…

“I can’t afford to continue shutting down due to COVID infections,” said Celentano. He stated that the company lost “not just a few hundred or thousand, but tens of thousands of dollars in cost and labor in anticipation of a busy weekend.”

Six months ago businesses had to worry about being forced to close by lockdown orders. Now they have to worry about being forced to close due to outbreaks seeded by unvaccinated customers, who are believed to be much more infectious when carrying the virus than the vaccinated are. (Argosy has around 36 employees so there are still plenty of staffers there at risk of being infected.) Another restaurant in Atlanta is closed for 10 days after breakthrough infections sidelined some of its own workers, forcing them to isolate.

Clearly the vaccinated are at greater risk of a symptomatic infection now, with Delta spreading, than they were a few months ago. The excerpt above makes clear that Argosy’s vaccinated owner is suffering physically and financially from his exposure to COVID. Policy consequences will necessarily flow from that as it happens more often. Maybe that means a return to universal masking, maybe it means more aggressive private mandates for employees to get vaccinated, maybe it means informal vaccine passports of the sort Argosy is now demanding.

The restaurant is also requiring employees to wear masks despite having been vaccinated in hopes of adding a little extra protection against infection. Scott Gottlieb said this morning on CBS that masking could be “helpful” even for people who’ve had their shots, provided they wear a quality mask like an N95. He suspects, reasonably, that because Delta is different, the vaccinated are now a bit more capable of infecting others than they used to be. If you’re immunized but you’re around someone who’s vulnerable then you might want to mask up to protect them, he told “Face the Nation” a few hours ago:

A Twitter pal posed this question: If the vaccines turn COVID into something more like the flu for vaccinated people, why should businesses close if there’s an outbreak among vaccinated staff? Businesses don’t normally close due to workers coming down with flu, do they?

Fair point, but there may be liability issues attached to a business knowingly having someone on the premises who’s infected with a virus that’s much deadlier than flu is. And it would be terrible PR to have obviously symptomatic employees handling food and drink, assuming they were in a condition to work at all. If I walked into a restaurant and the staff was visibly sick with flu, I’d want to know what they were doing there infecting their customers instead of isolating at home. All the more so with COVID, especially now that the new strain is hyper-contagious.

A trickier question is whether vaccinated staff who have tested positive should be at work if they’re not having symptoms or are having symptoms so mild that they can comfortably work through it, a la a cold. If Gottlieb’s right that Delta has made even the vaxxed infectious to others (although much less infectious than the unvaccinated are) then conceivably a vaccinated waiter with a breakthrough infection could transmit the virus to an unvaccinated customer and end up killing them. Should businesses care about that, given that the unvaccinated person has knowingly assumed that risk?

One question it’d be nice to have answered: Is Delta much more contagious than the flu? It’s one thing to say businesses should operate under flu protocols if everyone on staff is vaccinated against COVID, but what should the protocols be for an unusually contagious form of the flu?

I’ll leave you with this from David Frum, a reminder that getting vaccinated can’t completely protect you from the poor choices of others. The owner of Argosy learned that the hard way: “Reading about the fates of people who refused the vaccine is sorrowful. But as summer camp and travel plans are disrupted—as local authorities reimpose mask mandates that could have been laid aside forever—many in the vaccinated majority must be thinking: Yes, I’m very sorry that so many of the unvaccinated are suffering the consequences of their bad decisions. I’m also very sorry that the responsible rest of us are suffering the consequences of their bad decisions.”