Last week as she watched COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Portland and around Maine, Kate Klibansky decided to write an email to the owners and managers of the restaurant where she works suggesting they consider implementing a vaccine mandate.

“It wasn’t an ultimatum or a strong request, it was just me asking them to consider what information is out there and to consider implementing this policy that could have influence across Portland,” said Klibansky, who works as a bartender at Eventide Oyster Co.

Klibansky’s request worked. The restaurant group Eventide, owned by Big Tree Hospitality, has now launched a petition drive with other restaurants asking the Portland City Council to consider a vaccine mandate for certain indoor spaces including, but not limited to, restaurants.

“We believe that such a mandate is in the best interests of both the public health and the workers of businesses that are dependent on serving the public in settings that necessitate the gathering of people and often the removal of masks,” reads the petition, which as of Tuesday had been signed by nine restaurants besides Big Tree, which also runs Honey Paw and Hugo’s in Portland. There were more than 170 restaurants and bars in Portland as of July 2018, according to Press Herald archives.

Andrew Taylor, co-owner of Big Tree Hospitality, was at The Honey Paw in Portland on Tuesday evening. Big Tree employees have organized a petition asking the Portland City Council to adopt a vaccine mandate for restaurants, and Taylor said he is trying to present the petition to the council before its meeting Monday. Derek Davis

Big Tree co-owner Andrew Taylor said restaurant staff were instrumental in getting the petition started.

“Our staff petitioned us to try and get involved and institute a vaccine mandate individually for our restaurant,” Taylor said. “After discussing it we felt like trying to press the city to do it is the best course for both us and for public health in general.”

Taylor said he is trying to present the petition to the council before Monday’s meeting, where councilors are expected to consider whether to retain an emergency order that has allowed them to meet remotely during the pandemic, as well as a proposal for an indoor mask mandate in public buildings.

“Our restaurant group, and I know many restaurants feel this way, that mask mandates are kind of futile in restaurants,” Taylor said. “As a patron, 90 percent of the time you’re sitting in a restaurant you don’t have your mask on. We understand it for some retail establishments, but that’s why a vaccine mandate is better suited for hospitality.”

Some cities around the country, such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia, have already implemented vaccine mandates in some indoor public places as health officials are predicting another COVID surge driven by the omicron variant.

City Councilor Andrew Zarro is planning to sponsor a proposal for an indoor mask mandate at the council’s meeting. He said his proposal currently includes an exemption for businesses that check vaccination status and limit admission to those who are vaccinated.

Shannan Burnell and Don Murdoch, both from Hawaii, dine Tuesday at Eventide Oyster Co., where the staff has organized a petition asking the city to implement a vaccine mandate for restaurants. The couple said Hawaii has a vaccine mandate for indoor dining. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Zarro, who owns Little Woodfords coffee shop, said he saw the petition Tuesday but has not signed it because he is not currently allowing indoor dining.

“Honestly, I’m not comfortable with indoor dining,” Zarro said. “If I were doing indoor dining, yes, you would have to be vaccinated.”

He said he hopes the restaurants will bring their petition to the council and said the proposal he is presenting could lay the groundwork for further COVID protocols and requirements, including a vaccine mandate.

“We’re not coming out the gate right away with a vaccine mandate, but I think a mask mandate with a vaccine carve-out allows us to say, ‘Ok, let’s keep an eye on the numbers and see how things go,’ ” Zarro said. “Maybe we phase this in in a month or two months and in that time the council can hear from the community and talk to constituents.”

The petition started by Big Tree Hospitality says that while every restaurant and restaurant worker may not support a vaccine mandate, some feel it will be most effective coming from the city rather than have individual restaurants try to institute their own requirements.

“This mandate will reduce instances where diners go from one establishment where there is no vaccine mandate to a second establishment that is more prudent and has a mandate,” the petition says. “Additionally, diners will quickly become accustomed to carrying their vaccine cards in order to participate in city life.”

Raquel Stevens, who owns the restaurant Leeward with her husband Jake, said a vaccine mandate for restaurants would offer some assurance as they continue to grapple with the pandemic. She said they don’t currently ask guests for vaccination information.

“We would very much like to but we would feel more empowered if it was something established on the city level,” Stevens said. “I think it would be easier to implement. People would be more familiar with it and it wouldn’t catch people off guard if it was something the city was requiring in places like restaurants and bars.”

At Eventide, which also is not currently checking patrons’ vaccination status, Klibansky said staff are on edge and stressed as many guests enter the restaurant not wearing masks. There is no way to know if that’s because they are vaccinated or because they don’t believe COVID-19 is real or that masks and vaccines work.

“There’s a lot of not knowing and uncertainty surrounding work,” Klibansky said. “And with the numbers just crazy booming right now it doesn’t feel like we’re doing enough to keep staff safe, and I’m not talking about Big Tree Hospitality, I’m talking about each other in our personal lives and whether we get the vaccine or mask up.”


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