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Hell’s Kitchen business owners reacted with cautious optimism to Mayor Eric Adams’ announcement that proof of vaccination will no longer be necessary to enter New York’s restaurants, bars, and coffee shops from next week. Maya Joseph of Sullivan Street Bakery summed up the thoughts of many restaurateurs: “We were happy when the vax and ID check rule was first put in place. We’re relatively happy to see it go — we’re grateful to all the customers who happily showed us their IDs and proof of vaccinations from all over the world all these months, but it’s nice to look forward to less police work and more hospitality in the months to come.”

Mayor Eric Adams had said that he “can’t wait” to phase out the restaurant vaccine mandate. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

In a significant turnaround to the city’s pandemic management strategy, Mayor Adams announced that in response to falling COVID-19 cases he would likely set the city’s Key2NYC program to expire.

The Mayor said of the update: “New York City’s numbers continue to go down day after day, so, as long as COVID indicators show a low level of risk and we see no surprises this week, on Monday, March 7 we will also lift Key2NYC requirements. This will give business owners the time to adapt and will allow us to ensure we are making the best public health decisions for the people of New York.” 

Cases have continued to decline citywide, as the 7-day positivity rate dipped to 1.99% this week, with 86.7% of NYC adults fully vaccinated.

The Key2NYC program, implemented in August by former mayor Bill de Blasio, was one of the first citywide COVID-19 vaccination requirement programs in the US. The program requires proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, fast food restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, concert venues, museums, stadiums, and theaters.

Zachary Schmahl sees this as “a cautiously optimistic step forward to the end of the pandemic.” Photo: Nacho Guevara

Though the mandate is likely to expire next week, many NYC businesses began requiring vaccine checks prior to citywide enforcement and may still choose to maintain them at their own discretion, as has been the case in Boston, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. 

W42ST spoke to several local restaurant owners about the change. Said Zachary Schmahl, owner and founder of Schmackary’s Cookies: “While I would ultimately hope that people would just get vaccinated to protect themselves and the people around them, this is definitely a cautiously optimistic step forward to the end of the pandemic. We have been living in fear for the better part of two years and I think we are all looking forward to the days when we can be out in the real world without hesitancy.” 

Rob Doyle of Mom’s Kitchen + Bar added: “Mom’s has worked diligently for the past two years to ensure that we were able to operate while maintaining a safe environment for our staff and customers.  We stayed locked in to various changes in policies and mandates throughout the pandemic that changed the way we had normally operated and are thankful for all of our staff and their hard work.  We are glad to see all of those precautions paying off.  It is encouraging to see that the numbers have gotten to a point where the city is planning on removing the vaccination requirements for Key2NYC this coming Monday.  Our staff’s health and safety will remain our top priority and we look forward to a busy Spring season in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.”

Some restaurateurs expressed simultaneous gratitude for the safety provided by vaccination checks and relief in being able to focus on other aspects of their recovery. Said Caroline Bell of Café Grumpy: “We are looking forward to welcoming everyone back into our cafes and are happy our team can focus on making great coffee.” Added Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread: “From our perspective, dropping the vaccination requirement for dining indoors makes the interaction with each customer more pleasant. We have become comfortable with asking for the vax card and ID, but sometimes it’s awkward and it takes more time. We will be happy to welcome customers in without having to ask.  We hope this makes people feel more optimistic about venturing out to dine indoors, but some people may feel afraid to be indoors around others with fewer controls in place. It should be good for the restaurant business, and we hope that dining out will be on the rise.”

Several respondents hoped that operating with fewer restrictions would encourage increased patronage from both tourists and locals. Sean Keogan of Dalton’s Bar and Grill said:  “Glad the city will finally let our industry get back to normal, it’s been a tough 2 years and we are grateful to still be in business and are thankful for the great local neighborhood people whom we call friends that have supported us through all of this.” 

Said Timothy Ford of Becco: “We are concerned about our guests’ health with the vaccination policy being lifted, but we have noticed that many New Yorkers and tourists have been vaccinated so this eases our concern. It certainly will make checking in and seating our customers quicker and alleviate a little bit of the wait time. We feel we’re ready for this next step.”

“We at 44&X are extremely glad to hear that the Covid situation in New York has continued to retreat. We are hoping that the dropping of this mandate will bring us more out-of-state travelers who have been more reluctant to visit the city with all the mandates in place. We are hopeful and optimistic that business in New York should continue on an upward track,” added Bruce Horowytz of 44&X. 

Most respondents were in agreement that regardless of whether they planned to keep checking vaccinations, they were hopeful for a season of recovery for long-suffering restaurants. Said Enrico Livanos of Hudson West: “We look forward to easing back into normalcy.” Steve Olsen of West Bank Cafe added: “We are excited that this dreaded pandemic may be ending soon and true recovery can finally begin. We love our customers and neighbors and are looking forward to welcoming everyone with open arms. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but NYC.”

The team at Hudson West said: “We look forward to easing back into normalcy.” Photo: Phil O’Brien

Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance said: “We must continue to be smart and safe and also modify mandates as COVID risks are reduced. So removing proof of vaccination for indoor dining in NYC will be welcome news to many restaurants and bars, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some businesses want to voluntarily keep it in place.” 

As Zachary Schmahl of Schmackary’s concluded: “My hope going forward is that people will do what they feel is best for themselves. All we can do is continue to watch the numbers and keep ourselves safe, in whatever way we can. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of the dark days of COVID and we can slowly return New York to its original luster and turn this decade into the new roarin’ 20s. I continue to be hopeful that we are getting there.”

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