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Some Sonoma County restaurants requiring diners provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination for entry

Proof of vaccination could soon be on the menu at bars and restaurants in Sonoma County as the delta variant continues to fuel a rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the state.

Taking cues from the hundreds of San Francisco bars that will refuse indoor service to unvaccinated patrons along with ongoing worries about breakthrough cases and new federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines suggesting masks be used inside regardless of vaccination status, three Sonoma County restaurants are now asking for vaccine cards for entry.

Fernbar at Sebastopol’s Barlow center will be among the first to enact new rules, according to General Manager Sam Levy. All indoor service, both dining room and bar, requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours.

It was a concern for bartenders who interact closely with customers that first caused him to consider the mandate. Levy said he felt a groundswell of support for his decision when San Francisco bar owners overwhelmingly agreed to require vaccine status before entry.

“There’s just no escape for them, and I have a responsibility for the team and the overall safety of them and their families. I take that very seriously,” he said, adding that the veracity of the delta variant felt like “we are losing control again.”

“We’re in this place of confusion. We lived through this already and survived relatively unscathed compared to a lot of restaurants and bars. It was a long hard road and I don’t have a lot of energy left to hold this kind of stress,” he said.

The decision, Levy said, will likely come with fall out.

“There will be hate mail and backlash, but I’ll take all that and the hard conversations over a team member getting sick, or their parents getting sick, or their family getting sick. That conversation would be much harder to have and I couldn’t forgive myself,” he said. He said 95% of his 35-member staff are vaccinated, though most employers cannot require vaccination for employment.

On July 16, Sonoma County recommended that masks be worn indoors regardless of vaccination status out of “an abundance of caution” after new cases rose significantly. The guidance is advisory, and masks are not mandated.

That’s caused ongoing confusion for restaurant and bar owners and their front-line staff who are feeling vulnerable.

“We're just asking people to do the right thing,” said Crista Luedtke of Guerneville’s Boon Eat + Drink, Brot and El Barrio bar. She said that her staff are all required to wear masks and will ask patrons to mask when to actively eating. “I don’t have time to police everyone, but we will ask them to mask up when they enter,” she said.

Elsewhere in Guerneville a restaurant and hotel announced they will require proof of vaccination before entry ahead of this week’s Lazy Bear Week, an annual event that brings many visitors to the river town.

“Due to the ongoing issues with COVID-19, delta virus ... Timberline will be asking for proof of vaccination...to obtain a reservation or entrance to the restaurant. The health of our Employees and that of our patrons are of our highest concern,” read a post on the Facebook page of Timberline Restaurant. Owners of the restaurant did not respond to requests for comment.

Nearby R3 Hotel, which has a restaurant and bar, also posted on Facebook that it would require proof of vaccination before entering the property. Reached by phone, employees declined to be interviewed.

As for how they'll vet customers for proof, Fernbar’s Levy said he’ll be changing the reservation system letting people know the policy, check cards and QR codes (available for free at myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov) and have some hard conversations for the first few weeks.

“Logistically, this is going to be interesting, but many of our regulars say they’re really happy that we’re doing this. They want to come back inside and feel good about it, too,” he said.

“And we’re always happy to point people to our outdoor space,” he said.

Aaron Flores of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg echoes the most common sentiment of owners, a mix of worry for staff and desire for clarity from the county.

“We’re waiting for direction and there’s just no clear direction. We ask that people only enter if they’re vaccinated, but there’s no way to verify. It’s on their honor,” he said, adding that when people have been drinking it can be especially hard to get patrons to comply with protective measures.

“People are over it and requiring masks just starts an argument. It’s always a constant battle, but we are happy to enforce whatever the city and county impose,” he said.

As a bar and restaurant owner, Luetke said she expects some regression and additional protocols as we get through this new wave of the pandemic, but ultimately things will calm down.

“There’s never a dull day in this business,” she said.

You can reach Dining Editor Heather Irwin at heather.irwin@pressdemocrat.com.

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