A few weeks ago, as COVID-19 cases spiked across the state of Arkansas, veteran Little Rock restaurateur Capi Peck finally knew that it was time to implement a requirement that all diners passing through the doors of her 35-year-old restaurant, Trio’s, show proof of vaccination. It was a decision that she knew would come with some controversy in the conservative state, where Donald Trump secured more than 60 percent of the vote in 2020.
Peck, who also serves on Little Rock’s city board of directors, consulted her colleague and COVID-19 task force member Dr. Dean Kumpuris daily as she weighed whether or not to become the first independent restaurant in Little Rock to require masks. There were other businesses, including the restaurant inside the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and a nearby music venue, that had already implemented the use of “vaccine passports.” As case numbers ticked upward in Arkansas in early December, Peck asked Kumpuris whether or not it was time, and he said, “Hell yes.”
The issue of getting vaccinated — and more specifically, the notion that governments or businesses can require vaccination for specific activities — has become intensely politicized, inspiring a wide range of conspiracy theories, confusion, and anger. But under the threat of losing their businesses, already cash-strapped after two years of operating during a pandemic, and experiencing harassment from people who are fervently opposed to vaccine mandates, restaurateurs like Peck are holding firm and navigating these testy, troll-infested waters without the support of their governments.
Like most municipalities across the country, Little Rock has not implemented any sort of proof-of-vaccination requirement for indoor dining. Only a few cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and New Orleans, have passed such mandates (though with the omicron variant on the rise, more might follow suit). In a number of states, like Texas and Florida, Republican governors have banned government agencies and businesses like restaurants from asking for proof of COVID-19 vaccination before providing service. This state-by-state, city-by-city approach has created a patchwork of uneven enforcement, leaving many restaurateurs across the country to their own devices in navigating the implementation of a policy that has proven to be deeply divisive.
Peck made the announcement on December 5; the backlash was swift. “I had no idea just how ugly people can be. The haters were scripted and very organized. I’ve been called a brownshirt and a Nazi, which is very funny since I’m Jewish and my family fled Nazi Germany,” she says. “But this is a private business, and we can do what we decide is best. And it has overwhelmingly been the right and popular decision.”
The story is similar in Arizona. Back in August, Scottsdale chef Charleen Badman announced that her acclaimed restaurant FnB would require proof of vaccination. Immediately after blasting the news on social media and via her email newsletter, she was flooded with emails, phone calls, and actual picketers outside the restaurant who opposed the policy. “We had people calling us Nazis and telling us that we had committed business suicide,” Badman says. “Someone threatened to throw rocks through our windows. People would call and rant for two or three minutes and tell us that they’re putting our staff on some kind of watchlist.”
At one point, Badman even had to call the police after a man entered the dining room of her restaurant with a megaphone and began ranting about the policy. He was later arrested for trespassing.
Even in liberal Cambridge, a deep-blue Boston suburb that’s home to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, Pagu chef-owner Tracy Chang dealt with harassment over instituting a vaccine policy. (Boston will be enacting a vaccine mandate in January.) Chang was among the first Boston-area restaurant owners to require proof of vaccination earlier this summer, which brought a flood of one-star reviews on Yelp and Google, plus a slew of harassing comments on social media and phone calls to the restaurant. The backlash was so intense that Chang began to worry about the safety of her staff, who are largely Asian and Latinx, and coordinated with local law enforcement to beef up police presence around the restaurant in the days following her decision.
“We really did have the support of the Cambridge community,” Chang says. “All of a sudden, I started getting calls from people who wanted to leave 10-minute voicemails calling me a fascist, calling me a communist. When we looked at where those calls were coming from, it was almost always out of state. They never referenced having any actual experience with us before picking this fight.”
As the threats subsided — both Badman and Chang say that the bulk of the backlash only lasted about a month, though a few negative comments still trickle in from time to time — both restaurateurs realized that the decision had not actually driven very many customers away. Badman says it’s been “business as usual” at FnB, and according to Chang, the numbers at Pagu returned to pre-pandemic levels. “We used to be open seven days a week, and now it’s just dinner. We’ve been really, really lucky,” she says. “Bottom line, we are flourishing.”
Even though Peck’s policy is much newer, she’s noticed a similar bump in business. Since it’s been open for 35 years, Trio’s has a pretty devoted crowd of regulars, and Peck says that not a single one of them has told her that they won’t be coming back for the restaurant’s famed strawberry shortcake.
“Ultimately, I think that the way we responded to this has created such goodwill that my regulars are even more regular right now,” Peck says. “I saw the same people in the restaurant three or four times [in one week], just because they wanted to support me. I hate that this has been politicized, but I have always worn my politics on my sleeve. If somebody chooses not to eat here because of that, that’s okay. I’m going to survive.”