No vaccine, no service: Some Northern California restaurants require staff, patrons’ compliance amid virus resurgence

As mask mandates return and many blame the unvaccinated, Bob Brown, owner of Rancho Nicasio in Marin County, wants unvaccinated people to know something when he turns them away from his establishment.

“I'm not trying to punish them,” Brown said of the restaurant, bar, and music and wedding venue in Nicasio that he has operated for 23 years. “People who are not vaccinated should not take it personally if people like me are doing what we're doing. I have a business to run.”

But could his decision have a negative impact on Rancho Nicasio’s survival?

“I've never operated trying to worry about the bottom line. I just do what I think is right, really, and more often than not, it turns out to be OK,” Brown said. “I think for the number of people that I may be losing, I'm probably gaining the same amount of people who know that they’re going into a safe place.”

Brown implemented his vaccine-mandate policy on July 30. It applies across his establishment, both indoors and outdoors. The one exception is for children under age 12, “who have no choice in this matter.” All of Brown’s employees are fully vaccinated.

Joanne Webster, president and CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, said she supports businesses like Rancho Nicasio that are taking a stance.

“With the rise in new COVID cases and stagnating vaccination numbers, it is difficult to keep our employees safe,” Webster said. “If people care about local businesses, they should get vaccinated.”

Sheryl Cahill, owner of Station House Café in Point Reyes Station in West Marin, said she will likely implement a vaccination mandate within weeks to dine indoors at her restaurant.

“This will place a new, additional burden on our staff — after nearly one and half years of already challenging working conditions,” Cahill said. “Nonetheless, it feels like the right and responsible policy to do our part and keep everyone as safe as possible, while hopefully contributing to a movement that inspires those who may still be on the fence to go ahead and vaccinate.”

At the same time, Cahill is concerned about the long-term viability of her business if the latest COVID-19 surge isn’t brought under control.

“Another shutdown, or restriction to take-out only, could be the final nail in the coffin for many restaurants, including mine,” Cahill said.

So far, the state hasn’t run interference directed specifically at restaurants to require vaccinations for patrons and/or employees. When Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 26 announced vaccination mandates taking effect this month, it was for state and health workers. At the time, he also urged businesses to make the same move.

On Aug. 2, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association told the Business Journal it supports the right of restaurateurs to choose on their own whether to require vaccination cards.

But the clock could be ticking for restaurants and other indoor operations, as governmental moves are starting to be made across the country.

On Aug. 3, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that beginning mid-month, indoor businesses, including restaurants, must require vaccinations for all patrons. Later that day, during President Joe Biden’s press conference about the COVID-19 surge, a reporter followed up and asked Biden if he will publicly call on cities and states to mandate restaurants institute a vaccine passport-type system.

“I don’t think they need to do that,” Biden responded. “I think they just need to give the authority of those restaurants or businesses to say, ‘In order to come in, you have to give proof that you’ve been vaccinated or you can’t come in.’”

Danny Meyer, the New York-based owner of Shake Shack and Union Square Hospitality Group, will require proof of vaccination for indoor dining at his seven restaurants on the East Coast beginning Sept. 7, according to multiple reports. A decision about his Shake Shack food chain, which has more than two dozen locations in California, including one in Larkspur, hasn’t yet been announced.

Back in the North Bay, a number of restaurants, including La Toque in Napa, Timberline in Guerneville and Fern Bar in Sebastopol, are among those that have posted vaccination mandates on their websites or social media.

Ken Frank, chef and owner of La Toque, implemented mandatory vaccinations at his fine-dining restaurant on July 28.

“If you have not been fully vaccinated and have an upcoming reservation, we will be happy to reschedule for the future or refund your deposit on Tock,” Frank stated on his website, referring to a restaurant reservation platform. “We are all fully vaccinated and we feel, as a team, that this is the safest way to proceed until the threat (of the delta variant) subsides.”

Timberline instituted its policy on July 25, according to a Facebook posting, and Fern Bar stated on July 27 it joined many of its “fellow bars and restaurants” in requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the prior 48 hours to be seated inside.

Fern Bar was met with praise as well as swift blowback from a number of commenters, accusing the establishment of being everything from divisive, discriminatory and polarizing, to promoting segregation and “medical tyranny.” The restaurant responded that it is keeping the feedback in mind as it “continues to adapt to the changing situation.”

Terri and Mark Stark, whose Stark Reality Restaurants business operates seven restaurants in Sonoma County, at this time is limiting their requirement to masks and will mandate vaccinations if the county implements such a policy, according to spokeswoman Holly Hansen.

The Starks, however, are investing $21,000 in an effort to get all 475 of their employees fully vaccinated. So far, 100% of managers are fully vaccinated, but the staff percentage is at 85%, Hansen said. So on July 23, the Starks announced a lottery.

“They're offering three $1,000 gift cards per restaurant for all of their employees that are vaccinated,” Hansen said, adding those employees will automatically be entered into the drawing, which will be held Sept. 1. Managers will be available to help employees with transportation and appointments, she said.

For Brown, he’s hoping his mandate also will help unvaccinated people reconsider, including restaurant workers — something that hit home for him.

“Unfortunately, there were a couple of people who didn't want to get vaccinated, and I gave them every opportunity to change their minds,” Brown said. “They didn't change their mind, and it was painful to let them go because we need them. Getting help is hard.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.

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