Within days of San Francisco’s vaccine card mandate going into effect on Aug. 20, Carlos Martinez was still bracing for the worst.
“The first day was very rough, a lot of stress,” said Martinez, who manages his family-owned Cafe La Taza at 2475 Mission St. “That day, we were at our breaking point.”
He said they experienced hostility while enforcing the mandate, even from regular customers, and decided to reduce their dinner service for a while. Things have cooled down a bit since then, he said last week, but they have not yet reopened for dinner beyond Friday and Saturday nights.
Martinez said he understands businesses have a role to play in preventing the spread of Covid-19, but he also has a living to make. “I can see the big picture … but feel like we’re taking the short end of the stick,” he said, referring to the requirements placed on restaurant owners.
The proof-of-vaccine mandate requires anyone 12 years and older to show valid proof of full vaccination with matching photo identification to attend large indoor events or to go inside restaurants, clubs, gyms, and other indoor venues serving food and drink in San Francisco. That becomes trickier in a heavily immigrant neighborhood, where some fear showing photo IDs, and others simply don’t have one.
Resistance ensues, even in a city with high vaccination rates. Businesses want to comply with the mandate, but some feel the demands are too much, particularly for those serving populations who may be reluctant or unable to provide photo identification.
“It’s still really tough for us,” said Martinez. Along with several other business owners, he suggests that requesting to cross-check their customers’ vaccine cards with a photo ID is part of the problem.
“People might have a [vaccine] card, but they don’t have an ID, so I have to turn them away. I’m not sure if they don’t have an ID, or if they just don’t want to show me an ID,” he said.
He and others wondered if asking for an ID is intimidating or raising suspicion in a community with members who may have had bad experiences handing identification details over to the government.
“It’s hard culturally because … whether we’re undocumented or not, there’s past trauma. There’s very little trust,” said William Ortiz-Cartagena, Commissioner of the San Francisco Office of Small Business, about the Mission specifically. “There are so many concerns — valid concerns — because we’ve been historically mistreated and misguided and lied to.”
Whether motivated out of these or other fears, if someone won’t or can’t provide a photo ID to confirm their vaccination status, they’re ultimately not supporting local businesses.
Nancy Gutierrez, family partner at Silverstone Cafe at 3278 24th St., has been working there since April so her dad, the owner, can stay safe at home. Gutierrez said the mandate has “definitely” reduced the amount of business walking through the door.
She also agrees the photo identification requirement turns some customers away, even if there is an option to sit on the patio.
“Some people don’t have IDs, or they have forms from other countries,” said Gutierrez, explaining this makes them think twice about producing the ID for scrutiny.
Marco Senghor, who opened Little Baobab at 3388 19th St. over 20 years ago, is also seeing a downturn in business, and he too is thinking about reducing his opening hours. “Since the vaccine [card mandate] was imposed, a lot of people don’t show up,” he said.
He does not think the identification card is as much of an issue at Little Baobab; since they serve alcohol, they require ID checks anyway. But he understands why asking might turn some away.
“I really agree, we need to figure out the best way to protect people,” he said. “But now we are playing the role of police officer to our customers.”
As a hospitality industry veteran and “serial entrepreneur” of several parking, real estate, and other companies, including the non-profit CLECHA which supports Latinx entrepreneurs, Commissioner Ortiz-Cartagena can sympathize. He was also raised in the Mission and understands that the ID issue is “an awkward and hard ask.”
“These restaurants are trusted institutions … there’s a relationship with the community,” he said. “It’s hard for these people that have had this long-lasting relationship, and a waitress comes and basically says, ‘I hate to do this, but I have to make sure you’re not lying to me.’”
He said it’s important to keep listening to and supporting local businesses. While the Department of Public Health provided businesses with printable posters and a list of mobile applications suitable for checking vaccine status, the real onus for enforcing the mandate lies with businesses themselves.
Some community organizations have stepped in to help, including Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.
“We actually were proactive and started training our businesses before the mandate,” said Susana Rojas, Calle 24 executive director and a member of the Latino Task Force.
“Basically, we took all the info the city gave us and put it into bite-size, easy to understand pieces for businesses to understand,” she said. Their bilingual fliers and signage with instructions for proving vaccine status in “lively, pleasing” colors can be seen in businesses throughout the Mission.
These business leaders and local businesses understand vaccines and valid identification are important: Any vaccine card is easy to pass off as your own if someone doesn’t know your name, and more vaccinated customers means less covid spread.
“Obviously, we understand that this is hard for businesses to implement, but we also understand if we don’t implement anything to minimize spread, we’ll never get out of the pandemic,” said Rojas.