Atlanta restaurant mandates COVID-19 vaccine for customers

East Atlanta restaurant and bar Argosy now requires that guests be vaccinated against COVID-19. (Courtesy of Argosy)

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

East Atlanta restaurant and bar Argosy now requires that guests be vaccinated against COVID-19. (Courtesy of Argosy)

COVID-19 warning signs posted at the entrance to businesses have become more commonplace than the classic “no shoes, no shirt, no service” declaration. Could “no vax, no service” posters be next?

On Wednesday, East Atlanta restaurant and bar Argosy announced that it would begin requiring guests to be vaccinated. Argosy’s new rules come amid a surge in new coronavirus infections in Georgia and across the nation, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

In making the move, Argosy joins a small but growing roster of restaurants in cities like New York and Los Angeles that are mandating vaccinations among patrons.

The decision came after four Argosy employees — co-owner Armando Celentano and three bartenders — recently tested positive for COVID-19. Each had been vaccinated, marking them as “breakthrough” cases. Celentano was tested after feeling ill. His positive result prompted a round of companywide testing. “We think we were exposed at different times to unvaccinated people,” he said.

“It is a question of quality of life and safety for my staff and guests,” said Celentano, who was quarantining and experiencing mild symptoms that include a lack of smell, intermittent cough, lethargy, sinus pressure and swollen, light-sensitive eyes. “It’s a privately owned, small business and I have to do what I think is right to protect the people who rely on me to make a living.”

According to Celentano, all of Argosy’s approximately 36 employees have been vaccinated except one due to medical reasons.

The four positive tests (all other employees tested negative) prompted an immediate shutdown of indoor dining and bar operations over the weekend of June 17, with limited outdoor service, as well as takeout and delivery through June 19.

“I can’t afford to continue shutting down due to COVID infections,” said Celentano. He stated that the company lost “not just a few hundred or thousand, but tens of thousands of dollars in cost and labor in anticipation of a busy weekend.”

The seven-day rolling average of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 infections in Georgia on Thursday was four times higher than it was at the end of June, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows.

This week, the number of people currently hospitalized statewide for the virus eclipsed 1,000 for the first time since early May. The overwhelming majority of those patients are unvaccinated, state officials have said.

“There is a clear message that is coming through: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing last week.

Argosy employees will not check proof of vaccination at the door, in part because the restaurant doesn’t have the staff to support such protocol. Instead, customers are asked to carry proof of vaccination — either the original copy or a digital version, such as a photo from a smartphone — and show it upon request. Vaccination is required whether customers are indoors or outside.

Celentano said the policy was “fluid” and could change. “If it becomes obvious that we have to start taking vaccination cards at the door, we will,” he said. “We want people to have fun and walk around but not spread this thing to people and staff. … This is not, hopefully, a long-term policy. Hopefully, it is enough to get us through until we can develop herd immunity.”

In the meantime, Argosy is also reinstating a mask mandate among employees and reconsidering doing the same for unseated customers.

“We are hoping the sign on the door does a lot of heavy lifting for us,” he said.

The announcement was met with mixed reaction on social media. While some applauded the decision, others openly voiced opposition.

Sean Villalobos is among those critical of the new policy.

“It’s your right as a business owner, but from a purely practical standpoint, there’s no way you can verify who is vaccinated or not,” said Villalobos, a resident of Flowery Branch who said he frequented Argosy monthly. “From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to potentially alienate people at a restaurant.”

He continued: “I think it is more like a virtue signaling or political statement than ‘I want to keep people safe.’”

Celentano acknowledges the new policy as being “very divisive.” “I’ve been accused of virtue signaling, but at the same time, I have to take some sort of a stand to protect my staff,” Celentano said. “I’ve drawn my line in the sand. Is it political? Sure, if you want to take it that way. But at the same time, it’s getting the job done.”

Villalobos, 35, is not vaccinated and stated that he has a “pretty robust immune system.” “Chances are, I’ve already been exposed to it at this point and developed natural immunity,” said Villalobos, who works in the automotive repair business and has been deemed an essential worker throughout the pandemic. “Personally, I feel no threat from COVID-19.”

The three vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. are remarkably effective at preventing infection, hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, but they are not 100% effective. Breakthrough infections have been expected, though cases among the vaccinated generally are much milder than for those who have not been inoculated. The CDC recommends people who have been infected and recovered from COVID-19 get the shot because it is currently not known how long people are protected from antibodies acquired from prior infection.

Other metro Atlanta food-service workers are experiencing a threat from COVID-19.

Mediterranean restaurant Aviva by Kameel announced Wednesday that it was closing both of its locations because vaccinated staff tested positive for the virus. The downtown location is expected to reopen Aug. 2 and the Midtown location on Aug. 3, pending negative follow-up tests by employees.

Business at Aviva and Argosy has been impacted by breakthrough cases among staff, yet Argosy appears to be the only metro Atlanta restaurant to enact a vaccine mandate. Patrons of City Winery’s flagship restaurant in New York must show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to enter or otherwise consent to wear a mask, but the company does not have the same policy for its other locales, including in Atlanta.

“I would love to see some solidarity about this in the hospitality industry,” said Celentano. “I do hope this normalizes it to some degree and shows other establishments you can still survive and thrive while protecting your staff.”

AJC staff writers Ariel Hart and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.

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