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'We just want to get ahead of this variant': Hungry? Bring your vax card - some Richmond eateries asking patrons to show proof

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Dr. Fauci on breakthrough infections in DC and Virginia, and general trends

Facing a surging COVID-19 variant, some Richmond-area restaurants are asking patrons for proof of vaccinations or negative COVID-19 test results — or requiring people who don’t have either to wear masks when not seated at the table.

With COVID-19 cases rising again around Virginia and nationally, beleaguered restaurants everywhere are bracing for another round of fallout. Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam urged Virginians to get vaccinated and encouraged them to wear masks inside indoor public spaces, but stopped short of making that a requirement.

The requirement would need to come from the governor’s office, said Cat Long, spokesperson for Richmond and Henrico County’s health districts.

“Local health districts can’t make a requirement or a mandate; the strongest response we can offer is a recommendation. A mask requirement or mandate would require some version of the law changing. In the past, we’ve seen this done through the Governor’s executive orders,” Long said. “Although not a universal mandate, another pathway is for individual businesses, workplaces, schools, etc. to require masks indoors.

On Tuesday, Virginia had 1,403 new cases and a positivity rate of 6.1% — a stark contrast to just over a month ago, when there were 165 new cases and positivity rates were less than 2%.

“We just want to get ahead of this variant [and] we don’t want to go backwards,” said Alisha Wieckmann, marketing manager for LX Group, which operates the Richmond restaurants Nama, Kabana Rooftop, Switch Pop-Up Bar, Sonora Cantina & Rooftop, and Belle. The venues will ask patrons to produce either a negative test or a vaccination card. Those who don’t have either will be asked to wear a mask when not seated at a table.

It’s a day-by-day issue, Wieckmann said, and changes are likely since the venues offer both indoor and outdoor dining and state and national health guidelines are constantly evolving.

“We’re hoping this won’t cause an issue — it’s really just to keep our staff and our patrons safe,” Wieckmann said. She said she expects that some patrons will forget their vaccination cards or won’t be used to carrying them around. She said that at the moment, vaccinations aren’t required for entry to the restaurants, provided those who are unvaccinated follow the mask rules. The policies are effective immediately.

Not everyone will like that, but “we’re prepared to stick to our policy should someone fight it,” she said.

On Friday, Longoven announced by social media that patrons will be required to show proof of vaccinations for indoor and outdoor dining.

“Navigating the current situation as the pandemic changes is no easy task, but as from the beginning, the physical and mental health of our staff, families, guests and community are paramount,” the post read in part. “Thanks to everyone for your understanding and patience. Our hope is that this is temporary and that the optimism of these past few months prevails.”

It said staff members will be contacting those with reservations in August to confirm vaccination status.

Godfrey’s, known for its popular drag brunches, also posted new policies Friday on social media. The venue will require patrons to show proof of vaccination for admission or a negative test from within 72 hours, along with a valid ID.

“With you in mind, our staff has been fully vaccinated and we are constantly taking full measures to assure sanitation of our restaurant/nightclub,” the Instagram post read in part. “We are proud to take part in the efforts to get our economy and lives moving in a safe and progressive direction.”

Others, however, are still on the fence.

Chris Staples, director of hospitality and marketing for Eat Restaurant Partners, said by email that its restaurants will “strongly encourage” unvaccinated patrons to wear masks. The Eat group includes Wong Gonzalez, Beijing on Grove, Wild Ginger, Osaka, Fat Dragon, Fatty Smokes, Hot Chick, Foo Dog, and Boulevard Burger & Brew.

“As of now we are not requiring proof of vaccination from our guests,” Staples said, “only putting faith in people to do the right thing.”

Secco Wine Bar owners Julia Battaglini and Dave Martin are “strongly considering” asking for vaccination proof, but haven’t yet. Battaglini and her staff are all fully vaccinated and are committed to wearing masks in both the front and back of the house. She said she asks for vaccination proof when hiring.

Battaglini said by email that she was hoping to see more guidance from state leaders on vaccination policies. She was waiting to implement stricter policies if more definitive actions are taken here, such as those taken by New York City, which announced this week that individuals will be required to show vaccination proof for indoor activities, such as dining or working out in gyms.

“I’m deeply disappointed in their lack of leadership,” Battaglini said about local and state leaders. Recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health don’t help much when individual restaurants and business owners are left on their own to enforce policies, she said.

She added: “You’d think we’d have learned some lessons by now.”

hprestidge@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6945

Staff writer Sabrina Moreno contributed to this report.

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