‘Do I Look Like the COVID Police?’
At Biancardi Meat Market, the walls on one side are decorated with family photos and a picture of the twin towers with what looks like a Catholic prayer card nestled lovingly into the corner of the frame. On the other side, skinned dead animals hang from hooks—too small to be cows, but maybe lambs or goats. Arthur Avenue, high up in the Bronx, is one of New York’s last Italian enclaves, although there are some Albanians, too, and the street’s restaurant and bar owners are upset about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new mandate that their establishments start asking people for proof of vaccination or else deny them indoor service.
At the beginning of August, de Blasio announced that all indoor dining, drinking, and entertainment venues—including everything from movie theaters to strip clubs to concert venues to museums—would need to check for vaccination proof, with enforcement squads being deployed citywide on September 13. Fines for violation are extreme: $1,000 for a first violation, $2,000 for a second, and $5,000 for subsequent offenses. Given that a little over 76 percent of New Yorkers have received their first dose of the vaccine, and 78.5 percent of elderly people in the city have done the same, it’s strange that de Blasio’s so quickly resorted to the stick while the carrot still works. The scientific consensus right now is that vaccinated people, too, can spread the virus, so it’s unclear who exactly de Blasio’s edict is helping. Certainly not business owners, who must now enforce the rule or cough up.
Regina, who runs a large Italian restaurant, tells me that so far, she’s not asking people for their vaccine passports. (All last names and restaurant names have been withheld.) “First of all, I didn’t go back to 100 percent [capacity], my tables aren’t 6 feet apart, but they’re not on top of one another. We have airflow, we have high ceilings, we were doing all this before and now it’s like, why are they just targeting us, restaurants, again? We’ve been hit so many times,” she tells me. “De Blasio shut us down last December, two weeks before Christmas.…We had all our reservations for Christmas Eve, had every single person cancel.” Though some people ate outside and others ordered to-go, “we’ll never make up what we lost.” She tells me that Westchester County—outside of city limits—wasn’t shut down for indoor dining as long as city restaurants were, so patrons understandably flocked there, not wanting to dine outdoors during New York winter.
Regina’s talking about the shutdown of indoor dining that former Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered on December 11, 2020. This dictate was widely criticized when state COVID-19 data released soon after indicated that only 1.43 percent of cases in the city from the prior three months could reasonably be linked to indoor dining, with roughly three-quarters of cases linked instead to private social gatherings. Indoor dining was permitted again in mid-February 2021, with full-capacity indoor dining finally allowed on May 19.
The city and state have put restaurants through the wringer for the better part of the last two years. Mandated shut from mid-March to June 2020, when they were allowed to open for outdoor dining alone, they were again shut down again this past winter; they endured the eras of temperature checks and mandatory distancing between tables; the unscientific recommendation that restaurants with inadequate spacing use plexiglass barriers; then, as many restaurants made their roadway barrier installations permanent to allow for outdoor din
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