Battle over vaccine mandates lands on white-linen tablecloths of Napa
The rift over the moral obligation of coronavirus vaccinations has infiltrated schools and hospitals, stoked political outrage and divided families. Earlier this month, it landed on the white-linen-draped dining tables of downtown Napa.
“If you are for equality, if you are against discrimination, if you are for freedom, you cannot support this ideology — no matter what political party you align with,” a diner named Anthony Trimino posted on Instagram on Sept. 9 after visiting Morimoto Napa, one of Wine Country’s most exclusive restaurants.
“This is about human rights. This is about liberty. This is about choices over mandates.”
Trimino was referring to the Morimoto organization’s recent decision to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining at all of its 14 locations around the world, with some variation based on local ordinances and operating partners. Morimoto Napa has patio dining, too, but it did not satisfy Trimino, who happened to be a candidate in the referendum to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Twenty minutes into our meal (as we battled the heat outside while staring at a few parties in the restaurant enjoying the climate controlled AC environment) it hit us like a ton of bricks — this is what segregation looks like,” lamented Trimino, who wound up with 21,562 votes in the recall election, or four-tenths of 1% of ballots cast.
The dust-up generated enough heat to spread to Yelp. The online rating platform has subsequently suspended comments on the Morimoto Napa page, issuing an Unusual Activity Alert.
Morimoto may have had more reason than most establishments to consider a vaccination mandate, which they implemented Sept. 1. The Japanese restaurant, brainchild of famed Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, had to shutter its doors for more than two weeks in August because of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff.
Shik Ahn, vice president of operations for the Morimoto group’s management division, provided email answers to a limited set of questions from The Press Democrat, but chose not to offer specifics on the health-related shutdown or reaction from customers.
The restaurant also declined to make someone available for an interview.
Considering Morimoto Napa seats about 200 patrons and the wagyu striploin there has been known to run $35 per ounce, suffice to say the business incurred significant losses when it went dark from Aug. 4-19.
So, Morimoto had incentive to avoid another outbreak.
“We enforced this policy as a proactive measure to help protect both our staff and guests from the COVID-19 surge that we have seen across the country, particularly as it relates to the Delta variant,” Ahn wrote. “We want to do our part to end this pandemic and feel that enforcing vaccines for our guests and staff, are a forward step in that direction.”
When Morimoto first announced the vaccination policy on its Facebook account, the comments were generally, though not universally, supportive. But when Trimino posted his complaint, one notable reaction came from an interesting source — another Napa restaurateur.
“Sad that we didn’t know you were going to be in the Napa Valley!” Sheri Debow wrote to Trimino. “My Husband and I own three conservative businesses that have been defying these lockdowns since the beginning! … You have my vote but please come see us next time you are in the Napa Valley!!!!”
Long before Morimoto became the focal point of a COVID-19-related dining debate, Debow and her husband, Terry Letson, pretty much owned the space. They run three Napa restaurants — Fume Bistro, Petit Soleil and Sunshine Cafe.
Fume Bistro, in particular, emerged as a battleground during the pandemic, with Letson and Debow consistently railing against, and sometimes openly defying, Napa County health orders.
“People who want the vaccine have been allowed to get it,” Debow said in a phone interview. “So for people who don’t want it, it shouldn’t be an issue. The rest of us should be allowed to take risks for our own lives. Do I want to be told I shouldn’t go parasailing, that I shouldn’t swim with sharks? Should I be allowed to fly? I don’t want mandates of any kind telling people what they should or shouldn’t do.”
DeBow, who has been celebrated in libertarian-minded circles and frequently lambasted on a Facebook page called StopNapaHate that is run by young, left-leaning activists, admits to being “combative.”
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: