COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health

Want to eat at Danny Meyer’s restaurants? You’ll need a vaccine first

July 30, 2021, 3:30 PM UTC

If you snag a table for two for dinner at Gramercy Tavern in New York CIty or Maialino Mare in the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, make sure you bring a credit card — and a vaccination card too.

That’s because restaurateur Danny Meyer unveiled a plan on Thursday to require proof of vaccination for both employees and customers dining indoors at the company’s posh, full-service restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C. 

“It’s time to make sure that this economy continues to move forward,” he said on CNBC’s Squawk Box

In making his announcement, Meyer is wading into one of the thorniest debates about the reopening of the economy at a time when many communities across the country are seeing an increase in new cases of COVID-19, driven by the more highly infectious Delta variant.

In a sudden reversal of policy that has jolted the struggling restaurant and hospitality industry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week issued new guidance suggesting that all people—vaccinated or unvaccinated—resume wearing masks indoors. Disney World and Disneyland have promptly announced that they will again require visitors to wear masks inside park attractions and facilities, while other leisure-related businesses hoping for a pronounced rebound this summer are debating how best to move forward. 

Meyer’s announcement, which covers the 18 restaurants owned and operated by the Union Square Hospitality Group, is significant in that few companies have come forward to require not just employees but, crucially, all customers to go beyond mask-wearing and share proof of vaccination. (Meyer isn’t precisely the first to make this call, but he is the most high-profile.)

Lawmakers in some parts of the country are taking steps to ban vaccination checks altogether; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed such legislation in May. He has also moved to limit CDC restrictions on cruise ships, a key driver of Florida’s tourism industry. 

On CNBC, Meyer asserted that verifying proof of vaccination was more forward-looking than a mask mandate, saying that neither staff nor guests at restaurants want to return to a world of on-again, off-again face covering, outdoor-only dining, or dramatically reducing capacity. “That is so yesterday,” he said. 

So beginning on Sept. 7, guests at Meyer’s restaurants are advised to “please bring along either your physical COVID-19 vaccine card, your New York State Excelsior Pass, your relevant state-provided vaccine pass, or a photo of your vaccination card to share upon arrival,” according to a statement on the company’s website. 

On the employee side, Meyer says the company is offering workers 45 days to decide on their vaccination and eight hours of pay for each vaccination appointment. 

Though he acknowledged that his business is “shorthanded like everyone else,” Meyer says he is confident the vaccination expectation will not make it more difficult for him to hire and retain qualified workers. 

“I’m making a bet that there’s a huge number of employees who would actually rather come into a workforce when they know that they will be completely safe,” he said. 

He also noted that the majority of his current staff have already been vaccinated—and indicated that some employees have even been vaccinated on-site in restaurant dining rooms before service. 

Policies governing how companies accommodate vaccine-hesitant populations are evolving quickly and sure to be tested in the courts. Major employers, including Facebook and Google, announced vaccination mandates for employees over the past few days. And the Biden administration announced today that the government will require federal employees and contractors to show proof of vaccination or otherwise submit to regular testing.

“We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen more quickly and more successfully,” President Biden said, in announcing the new measure. 

Though Meyer’s company, Union Square Hospitality, is privately held and much smaller than the huge tech behemoths and federal contractors that have been out in front on this issue, Meyer is highly respected as an investor and management thinker on issues ranging from hospitality to cashless commerce to company culture. Apart from his fine-dining business, Meyer founded Shake Shack, the publicly held fast-casual restaurant chain. He noted today that Shake Shack is a separate company and will come up with its own policies on its own timetable.

“Every business has to make its own decisions, and we’re proud of the one we’re making right now,” Meyer told CNBC

Meyer also is the newly installed chair of the board of directors for New York City Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for pro-business policies; he was appointed to the board by Mayor Bill de Blasio. In joining the board, Meyer emphasized the importance of reopening businesses such as his own. “We’re ready to safely reengage the culture, travel, and hospitality industries,” he said. 

The biggest threat to that reopening, in Meyer’s mind, is transmission of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated. If more people are encouraged to get vaccinated by whatever means, so much the better. “This is the most logical thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’m not a scientist but I know how to read data.”

Right now, of course, the data is not so appetizing. The rate of new cases in New York City is trending upward and meets the CDC’s threshold for indoor mask wearing. So far, the city has declined to reinstate a mask mandate, instead focusing on driving more vaccinations. New York City announced this week that it will provide a $100 payment to any persons who get vaccinated this week, a notion the Biden administration is encouraging other cities to adopt.

Describing Meyer’s new policy as “HUGE,” De Blasio said in a tweet yesterday that “New York City fully supports this move. More businesses should mandate vaccines for the safety of workers and the safety of our city.”

Perhaps sensing that policymakers are looking to private employers to take the lead on more aggressive vaccination efforts, Meyer noted that businesses have “an amazing opportunity” to incentivize vaccine holdouts to reconsider. 

The politics may be muddied, but to an action-oriented entrepreneur, the economics are relatively straightforward—and call for decisive action. Rather than wait, “we’re going to do this ourselves,” Meyer said.

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.