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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.”

An Instagram post by Anthony Trimino, who at that time was a candidate in California’s gubernatorial recall election. Trimino had dined at Morimoto Napa.
An Instagram post by Anthony Trimino, who at that time was a candidate in California’s gubernatorial recall election. Trimino had dined at Morimoto Napa.

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!!!!”

Sheri Debow’s reply to Trimino’s post. She and her husband, who now own three Napa restaurants, have frequently opposed county health orders during the pandemic.
Sheri Debow’s reply to Trimino’s post. She and her husband, who now own three Napa restaurants, have frequently opposed county health orders during the pandemic.

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.”

But she insists she is not an anti-vaxxer. Her employees wear masks indoors, she said, and her restaurants all have some combination of high booths, Plexiglas barriers and outdoor seating.

But requiring vaccination? She and Letson will never be interested in that.

“Absolutely not,” Debow said. “We wouldn’t ask them if they’ve had vaccinations any more than we’d ask if they’re circumcised or have herpes. It’s their privacy, and nobody should be wearing it as a badge, like some photograph on Instagram that says, ‘I’m vaccinated.’ Medical privacy should go along with medical freedom.”

Jurisdictions have begun to overrule that viewpoint, arguing that personal medical decisions must be weighed against the common good while a highly transmissible virus rages. San Francisco, New York City and West Hollywood have vaccine mandates. Contra Costa County and the city of Berkeley do, too, but they will also accept proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

A number of eateries in the Bay Area have independently applied their own mandates. According to various published reports, these include La Toque in Napa; Ramen Shop, Sister and Golden Squirrel Club in Oakland; Haberdasher and 7 Stars Bar & Grill in San Jose; California Gold in San Rafael; and Sushi Yoshizuma in San Mateo.

Sebastopol’s Fern Bar stands out as one of the few Sonoma County restaurants insisting on proof of vaccination.

“There will be hate mail and backlash, but I’ll take all that (rather than) the hard conversations over a team member getting sick, or their parents getting sick, or their family getting sick,” Fern Bar general manager Sam Levy told The Press Democrat in late July.

The dining app OpenTable indicates The Matheson, a restaurant in Healdsburg, is requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining. Chef Dustin Valette says it’s really only a suggestion. He believes immunization is part of the path out of this pandemic. But a true mandate, he said, would be outside of his lane as a business owner, and ultimately too divisive.

“I think where we live in the world, in the U.S., this is a very bluish state and I think most people understand the position,” Valette said. “But it’s hard because we cater not just to locals, but to people coming from afar. Not all have our beliefs.”

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase has so far chosen not to institute a countywide vaccination mandate for restaurants.

If she did, Valette said, he wouldn’t fight the order like Napa’s Debow. He would welcome the move. The chef likened it to the accepted system of sub-minimum wages for service staff, supplemented by tips.

He wouldn’t want to unilaterally upend that, Valette said, because it would put him at a competitive disadvantage. But he’d be first to sign up if there were a national or state directive.

The same goes for vaccine requirements, Valette said.

“If I’m the only one in Sonoma County to say you must be vaccinated to be in my restaurant, to me, that’s me putting my personal beliefs over someone coming in for dinner,” Valette argued.

“But if we as a society, collectively — or if the people we have agreed upon to rule us, i.e., the government — decide it’s best for society to do that, I support that unequivocally,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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