L.A. restaurants in low-vaccine areas brace for new mandate hits

“Is this the beginning of the end?” Kim Prince asked during a recent phone call. “We have been in a period of pivot, pivot, pivot. I just want to fry chicken.”

On Monday, Prince, who owns Hotville restaurant at the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw mall, and all other restaurateurs in the city of Los Angeles will have to pivot again to comply with a new ordinance that requires customers to show proof of a vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test to dine indoors.

Enforcement of the ordinance, which covers shopping malls, movie theaters, beauty salons and other indoor activities, will start Nov. 29 and remain in effect until the city lifts its COVID-19 pandemic emergency declaration.

The new mandate will bring with it a minefield of potential failures and confrontations for all businesses affected, but owners of restaurants in areas with lower vaccination rates believe their survival is especially precarious.

“One thing I don’t want to have to do is have to ask every single individual, ‘Can I see your card?’” Prince said. In the 90008 zip code, where Hotville is located, only 54.1% of people have been fully vaccinated (64% of residents are Black, 24 % are Latino, 6% are white, and 3% are Asian in this area). “I don’t know what the solution is,” she added, “but what I do know is that businesses are already suffering and they are going to suffer to the point of closure, particularly if they rely on patrons to come through their door and they know that their community is not vaccinated.”

Prince said her sales are down significantly from what they were at this time last year due to a number of factors including increased food costs and opening and closing her dining room to comply with safety regulations. She, like many business owners, cannot take another hit.

“The vaccination rates in our area, the numbers just aren’t there to support the expectation or the optimism of getting back to normal,” she said.

What’s more, many of Prince’s customers are senior citizens, many of whom aren’t tech savvy and don’t use delivery apps. They come into the restaurant, have a favorite table, and like to eat their chicken hot.

In August, Hotville hosted an event for the Walgreens “This Is Our Shot” campaign. Singer John Legend joined a panel of doctors and pharmacists to talk to 30 people from the neighborhood about the vaccine. At the end of the presentation, there were doctors available to administer shots. Prince said only one person took the vaccine.

“He did not look like me,” said Prince. “Give it another 12 months of this type of regulations, and I promise by 2024 there will be more closed restaurants in neighborhoods of color than any other neighborhood.”

Lily Rocha, executive director of the Latino Restaurant Assn., said that many of the organization’s more than 830 members are concerned about vaccine mandates. And most, she said, are located in California.

“Because of the current number of people not vaccinated in the minority communities, I think we are going to see sales drop and people not going out,” she said. “We all know that Latino-owned restaurants and other minority-owned businesses have disproportionately taken a bigger hit and that continues now with the labor shortage and with the additional mandates and supply chain issues. Everything that’s affecting the general public, it’s affecting us more, because a lot of us didn’t receive the federal safety net money.”

Shalamar Lane, who owns My Father’s Barbeque restaurant in the city of Carson, went through her PPP money last year in a matter of days. “You hear restaurants say the restaurant got PPP money,” she said. “That’s nothing. I’m hoping we are not forgotten.”

Carson falls under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County, which has a proof-of-vaccination mandate for bars, breweries, wineries, distilleries, nightclubs and lounges. For now, the county recommends that restaurants ask for proof of vaccination, but it is not required.

Lane had just started an expansion of her dining room to add 60 seats when the pandemic started. She was planning to reopen her dining room later this month, but she thinks it might be best to wait.

“I’m going to watch what happens with everybody else’s restaurant and hopefully in the next few months be able to get some tips and see how things are moving before I make the decision to open,” she said.

Lane said her main concern is the safety and well being of her employees. She’s been offering takeout since the start of the shutdown, but interacting with customers behind a safety screen, through multiple mask mandates, has resulted in confrontations between her young staff and diners. She’s afraid that if the county enacts its own proof-of-vaccination mandate for restaurants things will only get worse.

“People will come up and they won’t have a mask on. You can tell they are doing it on purpose, and they will talk over our protective screen,” she said. “You have people that are going to be arguing and purposely coming to the restaurant who are not vaccinated to make a scene.”

In a recent op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, California Restaurant Assn. president and CEO Jot Condie stressed the need for security for small businesses.

“It seems only fair that the cities with health orders restricting entry to restaurants should provide funding for security,” Condie wrote. “Or, failing that, provide an option to send city or county staff trained in vax checking to run interference.”

At a New York City restaurant in September, a host was allegedly assaulted after asking a group of diners for their vaccine cards. And there have been dozens of reports of customers at shops, restaurants and markets around the country who have verbally and physically assaulted employees over mask requirements.

The stories resonate with Prince, who said she’s been “cussed out” many times after asking patrons to put on a mask.

“Someone might get assaulted because they are just trying to do their job and ask for proof of vaccination,” Prince said. “In some neighborhoods more than others [but] it’s a possibility anywhere.”

“It’s a burden to put that on restaurants,” said Greg Dulan, owner of Dulan’s on Crenshaw Boulevard in the city of Los Angeles. “I know that something has to be done, and I believe in the vaccine, but it’s going to create tension and who is going to save us when we have a customer screaming?” he asked. “I understand the need, but we are not equipped for this. We are not healthcare workers and most of us, quite frankly, are still trying to just hang on.”

For Dulan, Prince and Lane, fake vaccine cards and phony test results are also a concern. The city of Los Angeles outlines the ordinance online, with a breakdown of accepted forms of proof for both vaccinations and negative COVID-19 tests, but with four different ways to verify someone’s vaccine status, all three restaurant owners said a single, streamlined verification system is needed.

Dulan said he can’t afford to hire more staff to check vaccine cards, and the lack of a uniform system for verifying someone’s status will inevitably translate to more time spent at the door.

“There are a lot of fake vaccine cards out there,” Dulan said. “How rigorous is our examination supposed to be? If they are making us public health officers, then they need to give us a check, a tax abatement or some sort of compensation because it’s going to cost us in labor and revenue and stress. I don’t know how you quantify the stress of having to do this.”

L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino was one of two council members to vote against the city ordinance after his colleagues did not agree to several amendments that he’s proposed. The amendments included a report on funding sources to help small businesses comply as well as making it a crime to interfere with employees enforcing the rules.

“I do not support this ordinance because I believe it will cause confusion, place an undue burden on our small businesses and put our essential workers on the front lines again by making them the main enforcers of this mandate,” Buscaino said in a recent statement emailed to The Times. “I empathize with restaurant owners because it will be workers and small businesses who end up suffering the consequences of this policy, not people who remain unvaccinated.”

For the Independent Hospitality Coalition, which advocates for the Los Angeles area hospitality industry, mitigating punishment for what it calls “unclear mandates” is a top priority. Executive Director Adam Englander said the IHC had known for a while that a vaccine mandate for indoor dining was in the works and that members have been doing outreach to both the county board of supervisors and individual council members to push for clear guidelines.

“We can’t have individual restaurants be arbiters of what’s real or what’s not,” Englander said.

In the city of Los Angeles, if a business doesn’t comply with the ordinance, the first response is a warning. A second violation could result in a $1,000 fine, and fines can escalate up to $5,000 for a fourth or subsequent violation.

In addition to the need for more staff and security for vaccine checks and a low community vaccine rate (in 90043, 55.5% are fully vaccinated), Dulan believes his restaurant is at even more of a disadvantage because of the number of out-of-state customers who visit. Dulan is soul food royalty in Los Angeles. His father, Adolf Dulan, opened Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in 1985 and then opened the first Dulan’s in Inglewood in 1999. His restaurant is a popular destination for tourists, who might be inclined to dine in areas that don’t require proof of vaccination.

“What if those tourists don’t have the same requirements in Texas or Oklahoma and they come to L.A. and want to eat at our local soul food restaurants and don’t have their vaccine information? said Dulan. “We don’t want to turn away 12 people coming in to spend money with us. That’s going to hurt us.”

Both Dulan and Prince mentioned the county, city and possibly the California tourism board spending money on public service announcements, newspaper, radio and TV ads regarding the proof-of-vaccine mandates could be crucial in their efforts to avoid confrontation at the door. But they remain fearful that restaurants will still be buried too deep to ever dig themselves out.

In August, both San Francisco and New York City implemented proof-of-vaccination requirements for indoor dining. Locally, West Hollywood enacted an ordinance in October. It will take some time to fully understand the effects of the new mandates, but in a recent New York State Restaurant Assn. survey of 125 restaurants, 67.2% reported customers storming off after being asked to provide proof of vaccination. More than 60% said they had groups cancel reservations because of the mandate and over 75% said it had hurt their business.

“I will be a guard dog at the door and police this thing, but we need more voices at the table when decisions like this are being made and they need to be representative of everybody, Prince said. “It will make restaurants in neighborhoods like mine crumble because we rely on people coming in.”