Saint Paul bars and restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues that have been struggling for close to two years with state-imposed shutdowns and a drop in business driven by fears of COVID-19 now find themselves bracing for the impact of Mayor Melvin Carter’s new vaccine mandate. The mandate, which took effect on January 19, requires all patrons of those venues to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test within the previous 72 hours.

“This policy is intended to slow the spread of COVID and keep our local economy moving forward,” Carter said. It will remain in effect for 40 days or until the end of the declared local COVID emergency, whichever occurs first, he said.
 
 
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W.A. Frost manager Mike Noyes confirms the vaccination status of guests (from left) Jaclyn Wainwright, Julie Vandelac, Laura Cook and Andy Thieman before seating them on January 18 at the Ramsey Hill restaurant. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Some restaurant owners contacted for this story lauded the vaccine mandate as critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19. However, many others declined to comment or did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

For bars and restaurants, the mandate applies only to indoor service and only to those that have a city license to serve alcoholic beverages. Nevertheless, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA) was not pleased.

Calls to the MLBA were not returned, but in a post issued after Carter’s January 12 announcement of the mandate, the MLBA stated: “We understand the seriousness of COVID for the health of the community, patrons and employees. But it’s hard to understand a vaccination mandate that’s unjustified and unscientific. It targets one specific industry with zero science or data driving the decision, and zero caring about our dedicated frontline workers who will now add ‘enforcement agent’ to their job titles. The only scientific thing we know is that it has devastated the hospitality industry in other cities with these mandates.

“They say we’re in this together,” the MLBA continued, “but this mandate shows that the hospitality industry is clearly targeted alone. We know both vaccinated and unvaccinated people spread the virus. And it happens at schools, workout facilities, other retailers, sporting events and more.”

 

“We have done our best to keep both our employees and guests safe throughout this process,” said Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Company, which owns the Highland Grill and Groveland Tap in Saint Paul. “This has included masking, an on-site vaccine clinic for our employees, and a COVID booster shot and flu shot clinic.… The new vaccine mandate puts additional stress on our team members by asking folks who are trained in hospitality to be enforcement agents, but we can do it.”

The mandate applies to bowling alleys and theaters that are licensed by the city and serve food or beverages. Ticketed events at Xcel Energy Center and Allianz Field are also included, although for them the mandate does not take effect until January 26.

 

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Vaccine booster shots are not required by the mandate, and children under the age of 5 are exempt. Carter’s initial order required all employees of businesses under the mandate to be vaccinated or regularly show negative test results. However, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for all businesses with over 100 employees, Carter amended the mandate to not include employees.

Mandate finds support among patrons and restaurants alike

“I’m very supportive of the action taken by the mayor,” said former Saint Paul mayor and Highland Park resident Jim Scheibel. “I very much welcome the mandate for restaurants. Our condition is still very serious.”

Maria Gans, who owns Luci Ancora at 2060 Randolph Ave. with her siblings Daniela and Stephen Smith, also welcomed the mandate. “From the time all of this started, we’ve asked, ‘How do we make our restaurant safe?’” Gans said. With all of their staff fully vaccinated and masked, she added, “this is not going to last forever. Many other cities in the country and the world have been made safer this way. We can follow their lead without it having to be difficult.”

Marina Liberman, who with her husband Norm Liberman owns Moscow on the Hill at 371 Selby Ave., said they, too, are happy to follow the mandate. The couple are both physicians, and they understand the importance of containing contagion, she said. “I’m personally in support of vaccinations,” Liberman said, though she understands those who have different perspectives.

“I’m absolutely 100 percent behind the mandate,” said Highland Park resident Joanne Collins, who worked throughout her career as a cardiac nurse and nurse manager for Hennepin County. “With our hospitals so strained, we need to do whatever we can to help take care of staff and to keep people from becoming ill.”

Collins does not believe the mandate will hurt the restaurant business. She spent much of the last year vaccinating people. During that time, she and her husband continued to frequent the Highland Grill, 771 S. Cleveland Ave., because of the safety measures the Highland Village restaurant had put in place.

“We have done our best to keep both our employees and guests safe throughout this process,” said Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Company, which owns the Highland Grill and Groveland Tap in Saint Paul. “This has included masking when state and city guidelines have indicated, an on-site vaccine clinic for our employees, and a COVID booster shot and flu shot clinic in November. We created a wellness committee and provided access and information on mental health services to support our teams. The new vaccine mandate puts additional stress on our team members by asking folks who are trained in hospitality to be enforcement agents, but we can do it.”

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A 22-year veteran of the restaurant, bartender Dan Odell mixes a couple of drinks for patrons at W.A. Frost. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Peter Drinan, general manager and executive chef at W.A. Frost, 347 Selby Ave., believes the vaccine mandate will not only make indoor dining safer, but benefit restaurants as well. W.A. Frost has required patrons to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test since last September. Customers are also asked to wear masks when they are not seated at their tables or the bar.

“Since COVID hit, we’ve followed CDC guidelines to a ‘T,’” Drinan said. “Our approach has been to trust the experts rather than anything political, (and our) business has come back to pre-pandemic levels. Some people might believe the new safeguards will harm business, but we’re confident of the opposite.”

— Anne Murphy

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