Protesters are harassing restaurants over their vaccine requirements. What did city officials expect?
Protesters rallying against vaccine mandates in New York City last November. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
New York City restaurants are once again caught in a Catch-22. Businesses can still legally enforce their vaccine requirements to protect customers and staff, but the decision can make them more vulnerable to local groups opposing the policies. For some who have elected to keep their proof-of-vaccination requirements in place, the past two weeks have been defined by online threats, in-person protests, one-star Yelp reviews, and other forms of harassment. These issues aren’t new, but restaurant and bar owners say they have escalated since city officials lifted NYC’s vaccine mandate on March 7 — without a contingency plan.
“[City officials] were not ready for this,” says Carlos Cruz, a general manager of multiple Brooklyn restaurants, who spoke to Eater on the condition that his employer’s businesses would not be named because he is concerned about further retaliation. His restaurants have been flooded with violent threats over social media and email in recent weeks in regards to their ongoing vaccine requirements. “Is this a joke,” he wonders. “Or are people trying to kill us?
In light of the retaliation, and reports of in-person protests at other businesses, Cruz says that restaurants have been left to fend for themselves with little support from city officials. “Restaurant owners and managers expected this from the beginning,” he says. “I’m a little bit perplexed that the government wasn’t thinking there was gonna be consequences.”
In a statement to Eater, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams’s office condemned the protests but declined to comment on how restaurants should respond to backlash, while emails to the NYPD’s 10th Precinct, where multiple protests against vaccination policies have occurred at Manhattan restaurants in recent weeks, went unanswered.
“When Mayor Adams lifted Key to NYC rules earlier this month, he made abundantly clear that restaurants could choose to continue requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said. “We forcefully condemn any efforts to harass or intimidate business owners who have elected to keep such rules in place, and ask all New Yorkers to treat owners and staff with the respect they deserve.”
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a group that represents hundreds of food businesses across the city, recommends that restaurants notify city officials and police “if there’s a threat or serious concern.” But restaurant owners say that emails and phone calls to city officials have gone unanswered, and in some cases it’s taken more than an hour for local authorities to arrive on scene.
Natalie Freihon, owner of the Orchard Townhouse, says a group of protesters entered her Chelsea restaurant around 3 p.m. on March 16, stormed past the host stand, and occupied all of its empty chairs. When asked to provide proof of vaccination,