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Group of 500 San Francisco bars deciding whether to require proof of vaccination before entry

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant, a group of more than 500 San Francisco bar owners is considering whether to require vaccine cards for entry at their members' bars across the city, just as new mask recommendations have arrived in the Bay Area.

Moving to check vaccinations at entry to bars in the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance would be done on a volunteer basis, but Ben Bleiman — the head of the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance — said the alliance may issue a statement from the 500-member group recommending only patrons who are vaccinated would be allowed in, a move that would include accompanying signage outside of the participating bars.

"I didn't know anybody who was [requiring vaccine cards at first], only the most strict people," Bleiman said. "Just in the last 24 hours, I've seen a lot of people changing their tunes. So I think we're in the middle of a big flux."

Although the alliance likely won't make a formal decision until next week at the earliest, some members of the alliance are already starting to take part: Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach made the decision Tuesday to require proof of vaccination before entry, said owner Janet Clyde.

"We just started it because it's clear that there's just a segment of the population that is not vaccinated," Clyde said. "And really until this settles down, I think it's definitely safer for our staff and our clientele if we limit the indoors to people who have proof of vaccination."

Customers are required to show a photo or QR code showing proof of vaccination before entering Vesuvio. Clyde said she is looking to take a proactive stance on requiring vaccinations for patrons, rather than waiting for government mask mandates. Citing the mask requirements in Los Angeles, Clyde said it was important to "get ahead of it" and that people will be understanding.

"We've had a couple employees who have tested positive and we want to protect our staff and I think we really can't wait for [local government] to develop general guidelines at this point," said Clyde, who noted both cases were breakthrough COVID cases. "I mean, this is a situation that's happening now."

Bleiman is most likely making the change with his own bars as well, he said, which includes Teeth, Tonic and Soda Popinski's. "If, you know, 50, 100, 200 bars want to put up a sign that says 'you must be vaccinated to enter,' I think that'll be impactful," Bleiman said.

Bleiman says he's heard similar stories about breakthrough cases happening at other bars in San Francisco. He echoed Clyde's assertion that bar owners should be getting ahead of any potential surges to protect staff and business.

"I think getting out ahead of it would be really smart and I think our survival will be based on people feeling safe in our establishment," Bleiman said. "And if we can put a line in the sand — and again, we [as an alliance] haven't done this yet — but I think there's potential if we put a line in the sand for us getting out ahead of this, and for our customers feeling safer, meaning that we are back to normal faster [since] we're clearly not normal yet."

For its part, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association said while it supports the actions of the bar alliance, the reality of checking vaccination status is a challenge for restaurants.

"Verifying vaccination status has, and continues to present many challenges for restaurants," the group said in a statement. "Our staffs are not trained to verify, our spaces are often porous with numerous entrances and there are questions about the logistics as the state app appears to not fully work.

"We support the actions of the SF Bar Alliance and any businesses that act to take whatever steps are in the best interests of their staff and businesses," it continued. "However, bars are set up on a different model with a controlled entrance and with staff used to carding patrons and checking IDs."

The group said it would continue to follow the guidance of local health officials and that restaurant members are strongly recommended to follow the indoor masking recommendations issued July 16.

As for how the city has handled the pandemic, Bleiman expressed support for its actions, but he doesn't want to wait for guidance from them before making the change to require vaccination cards.

"I think that [the San Francisco government is] still hoping that our vaccination rates are gonna hold up, but we are anecdotally seeing a lot of people come down with mild to medium cases of COVID," Bleiman said. "I kind of see the writing on the wall and I think if we get out ahead of it — and it's not like we're shutting down or anything, we're just saying you've gotta have a vaccine.

"I also think that, for some reason, the government everywhere — from the feds to the state to the locals — have been so nice to people who won't get vaccines and I think that needs to stop," Bleiman continued. "We need to start playing hardball with them, they're a bunch of a—holes, and you can quote me on that. And I'm not talking about the people who can't get [the vaccine], I'm talking to the people who can and choose not to. They're selfish and they're ignorant and they're putting us all in jeopardy and making it harder for all of us to recover from this. And we need to stop treating them like they just don't have the right information. The information is right there, it doesn't lie. And they need to stop thinking that they know more than the scientific experts."

Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:35 p.m., July 21, to include a statement from the Golden Gate Restaurant Association on verifying vaccination cards.

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