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Why 2 Columbia restaurants require diners be vaccinated — and why others aren’t

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Lula Drake Wine Parlour reopened recently and instituted a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for indoor dining at the end of July.

Few Columbia restaurants are currently requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for indoor dining, but others are taking different measures — like focusing on staff vaccination.

In Columbia, Main Street’s Lula Drake Wine Parlour was the first to put such a rule into place. It comes as the rise of COVID-19’s Delta variant has reignited the pandemic in South Carolina and throughout the country, with some government officials putting measures like mask mandates back into place.

Lula Drake enacted its vaccination policy on July 29 and is joined by one other Columbia restaurant, Cottontown pizzeria Il Focolare, in instituting such a rule.

At Lula Drake, customers are required to be vaccinated to sit indoors, though no proof of vaccination is required. Anyone is eligible to sit outside.

At Il Focolare, details are still being planned out, but the policy is expected to focus on a reservation system that will require verification of vaccination status.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve had one mission and that is to keep everybody that works for me and their families and my families safe,” Lula Drake owner Tim Gardner said. “That is why we closed, that’s why we waited to open. That’s why we’re requiring vaccines for indoor dining.”

Similar rules are being put into place around the country on a broader basis.

New York City recently required anyone dining inside a restaurant to show proof of vaccination, and Los Angeles’ City Council began deliberating a similar move last week. No such move has been discussed at a local level in South Carolina, and few restaurants have yet to enact their own policies.

The divisive political nature of the pandemic has created a deterrent to such efforts, with Gardner acknowledging the backlash he faced.

He said he’s received some criticism, but it’s been far outweighed by practical benefits and encouragement. He credited it with helping ignite one of the best weeks he’s ever had in business, which comes during the summer, a notoriously slow time in the city’s food scene.

“I knew that some people wouldn’t like it. Others would,” Gardner said. “I felt they were looking to us to do it.

“I understand that some people are not going to agree with it. … That’s why we live in this country, right? There are 931 other restaurants that they can go choose from.”

Boca Grande Burrito chef-owner David Grillo is currently not requiring vaccinations at his restaurant. He said that the divisive nature of the issue plays a part in his decision. Grillo was also uncertain it was his place as a restaurateur to enforce a rule.

“If everyone in the restaurant industry was coming together and agreed that this is something we should do, absolutely I’d do it,” he said. “Would I like it to happen? Absolutely.”

Grillo said he’s in support of vaccinations and regretted the way the issue has become about “individual rights” and politics, rather than it being a health issue. Over 90 percent of his staff is currently vaccinated and he explained they would be driving one employee to a vaccination appointment to help build on that figure.

On July 30, restaurateurs and chefs Sarah Simmons and Aaron Hoskins announced they intended to reopen their snug Cottontown pizzeria Il Focolare in “approximately early September.” The plan is to be reservation only, aside from a small number of walk-ins, and to require vaccinations for customers, they said in a statement. Though, the two noted that “we have not yet figured out all of the details for how this will work” and that they plan to look to other restaurants instituting the requirement to mold their own policy after.

The statement detailed that the eatery would continue to offer takeout and online ordering, with the only requirement for that being wearing a mask. They will also continue curbside pickup. They emphasized that the move was made with their employees in mind.

“We have maintained strict masking rules for our team and those picking up orders for the last 18 months and we can credit those safety measures with preventing even a single COVID outbreak among our team,” the statement read. “With the rise in COVID cases locally and our very small dining room, we felt as if we had no other choice than to continue to focus on the health and safety of our team and community. We feel strongly that our team has the right to safe workplace and do not feel that asking for proof of vaccination for inside dining is too much to ask to accomplish this.”

The statement continued: “We are hopeful that this will only be a temporary measure and we will be back to a more normal way of operating this winter as cases decline and vaccination rates increase.”

Policy shifts to the degree that Lula Drake and Il Focolare are undertaking are uncommon in the Columbia area, but other measures are still being taken.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially announced its return to recommending masks for vaccinated individuals for areas of “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission on July 28, eateries like Spotted Salamander reinstated mask policies for staff. As of Aug. 9, the CDC listed all South Carolina counties as having high levels of transmission.

In Forest Acres, Tazza Kitchen isn’t requiring vaccinations, but is emphasizing vaccination in its employee base. In a recent job hiring post, it detailed that only people who were vaccinated or mid-vaccination would be considered for positions at the restaurant.

Operating partner Dave Desseyn said the restaurant’s staff was already about 80 percent vaccinated, and he was providing medical information to workers who weren’t. Additionally, he’s requiring unvaccinated staff to provide weekly negative COVID-19 tests to continue working.

At this point, Desseyn said he isn’t requiring customers be vaccinated or return to mask wearing. He believed that customers were “over” masking and it made more sense to focus on protecting his staff.

“We got to protect the business and the people who work here. This Delta variant is spreading like a fire in California,” he explained. “We want to make sure we’re able to take care of business without having (to close temporarily).”

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