‘Do I Look Like the COVID Police?’

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At Biancardi Meat Market, the walls on one side are decorated with family photos and a picture of the twin towers with what looks like a Catholic prayer card nestled lovingly into the corner of the frame. On the other side, skinned dead animals hang from hooks—too small to be cows, but maybe lambs or goats. Arthur Avenue, high up in the Bronx, is one of New York’s last Italian enclaves, although there are some Albanians, too, and the street’s restaurant and bar owners are upset about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new mandate that their establishments start asking people for proof of vaccination or else deny them indoor service.

At the beginning of August, de Blasio announced that all indoor dining, drinking, and entertainment venues—including everything from movie theaters to strip clubs to concert venues to museums—would need to check for vaccination proof, with enforcement squads being deployed citywide on September 13. Fines for violation are extreme: $1,000 for a first violation, $2,000 for a second, and $5,000 for subsequent offenses. Given that a little over 76 percent of New Yorkers have received their first dose of the vaccine, and 78.5 percent of elderly people in the city have done the same, it’s strange that de Blasio’s so quickly resorted to the stick while the carrot still works. The scientific consensus right now is that vaccinated people, too, can spread the virus, so it’s unclear who exactly de Blasio’s edict is helping. Certainly not business owners, who must now enforce the rule or cough up.

Regina, who runs a large Italian restaurant, tells me that so far, she’s not asking people for their vaccine passports. (All last names and restaurant names have been withheld.) “First of all, I didn’t go back to 100 percent [capacity], my tables aren’t 6 feet apart, but they’re not on top of one another. We have airflow, we have high ceilings, we were doing all this before and now it’s like, why are they just targeting us, restaurants, again? We’ve been hit so many times,” she tells me. “De Blasio shut us down last December, two weeks before Christmas.…We had all our reservations for Christmas Eve, had every single person cancel.” Though some people ate outside and others ordered to-go, “we’ll never make up what we lost.” She tells me that Westchester County—outside of city limits—wasn’t shut down for indoor dining as long as city restaurants were, so patrons understandably flocked there, not wanting to dine outdoors during New York winter.

Regina’s talking about the shutdown of indoor dining that former Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered on December 11, 2020. This dictate was widely criticized when state COVID-19 data released soon after indicated that only 1.43 percent of cases in the city from the prior three months could reasonably be linked to indoor dining, with roughly three-quarters of cases linked instead to private social gatherings. Indoor dining was permitted again in mid-February 2021, with full-capacity indoor dining finally allowed on May 19.

The city and state have put restaurants through the wringer for the better part of the last two years. Mandated shut from mid-March to June 2020, when they were allowed to open for outdoor dining alone, they were again shut down again this past winter; they endured the eras of temperature checks and mandatory distancing between tables; the unscientific recommendation that restaurants with inadequate spacing use plexiglass barriers; then, as many restaurants made their roadway barrier installations permanent to allow for outdoor dining in the streets, the city’s Department of Transportation slapped regulations on them that required complete overhauls of their structures (and fat fines for any deviation from the guidelines). So what’s left? Not many employees, and not much goodwill toward the state, or interest in complying with demands.

“At first, when everybody was getting vaccinated and they were so excited to come back in, they’d say to you, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m vaccinated, do you wanna see my card?'” says Regina. “Now I have to ask you for your card, and you’re like, ‘What are you asking for? It’s an invasion of my privacy!’ Oh my god, it’s a catch-22, do I want people getting mad at me at the front door?”

“Every time we get two steps forward, you put some other hit on us,” she says. “It’s like, targeting the restaurants, again? If they’re gonna do [vaccine passport mandates] in the Bronx and all the boroughs, then you have to do it statewide, not just New York City.” 

I ask what happens when the enforcement date, September 13, rolls around—will she start asking for people’s vaccination cards then? “I think so. I don’t need thousands of dollars in fines. I can’t afford that.…[But] I [also] can’t afford to hire another person to do this job, and have people get nasty with that person,” she says, emphasizing that she’s also short-staffed on top of all this.

“People are getting so much money that they’re not gonna come back to work,” she tells me, saying that a couple of employees have decided not to come back due to their unemployment benefits being so high. Others found work elsewhere during the shutdowns. But hiring is hard right now; I noticed a dozen “we’re hiring” signs on my walk around the neighborhood. “Do I look like the COVID police?” Regina asks, indignantly, “Do you want me to be a cop too? How do I know if your pass is real or not?”

Over and over again, restaurant owners and workers tell me they take the virus seriously, that they had it, or that they lost older loved ones to it. Regina lost her father earlier in the pandemic; a guy at a fish market tells me he has an older friend who is in the hospital on a ventilator right now. Nobody seems callous when they talk about it.

Danny, who serves me a cappuccino, tells me through his thick accent that they have to enforce the vaccine mandate, “otherwise the punishment will be very harsh.” Most of his customers are vaccinated but some are not. Why? “They believe conspiracy theories and all that stuff.” Danny thinks everyone should get the vaccine but that the fines are so expensive. “The biggest problem,” he says, “is no way out. Because first, when COVID happened, the whole world was running for the vaccine. Then, get vaccinated, after we get vaccinated, right, then now you can go without masks, then, no, you should put the masks [on] even if you are vaccinated, so it’s very confusing.”

He tells me he’s serious that everyone should be vaccinated, but “the government should have a map for a way out. People have to know when this thing is gonna stop!”

Dihae, a woman from Kosovo who works at an Albanian cafe, is mid-altercation with a customer who hasn’t shown his vaccine passport when I walk in. Nobody’s speaking English, and everyone’s tense. Finally the man retrieves his folded-up vaccine card from his wallet, and she seems relieved. She says she’s had to turn three or four people away today alone. A lot of her customers, all Albanian, “don’t believe that the vaccine can protect them…they prefer to do the test every week than to do the vaccine.”

When I ask Paul, at the beer bar, what they’re going to do starting September 13, he says they’ve been checking, but “you hope that there’s a surge in vaccinations,” and “that more people acknowledge that vaccine as a step in the right direction.”

“Are we promised a guarantee that it’s 100% effective? No, that’s with any vaccine though; you take the flu shot to make sure that when you get the flu, it’s not full-blown flu.” Like Regina, Paul says they’ve overhauled the space. The bar is sort of an island unto itself within a broader food hall, but he’s removed the barstools for the duration of the pandemic, making the counter just for serving and tasting, but less for lingering.

What was initially state-mandated feng shui-ing has become a more permanent change, perhaps in an effort to ease the minds of city regulators and the COVID-cautious. Bartenders are used to handling belligerent people when the situation calls for it; hopefully the belligerent won’t multiply with the imposition of de Blasio’s vaccine mandate.

A little more than half of the dozen people I chatted with had contracted COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic. It’s left many of them with a sense that, yeah, it’s bad, and it’s especially dangerous for the elderly, but most people pull through—can the same be said about their businesses? Will their jobs be there tomorrow? Or will the businesses they’ve worked to grow over the years fold, another pandemic-era casualty easily linked to the state’s all-too-common malfeasance.

As the train goes west to east, connecting Manhattan to Queens’ Long Island City, I wonder whether de Blasio’s enforcement squads will target boroughs and neighborhoods they know have lower vaccination rates. Will they spend any time at all in highly-vaccinated Park Slope? In SoHo? In Greenpoint? In Chelsea? My own borough, Brooklyn, is a whole different world. One of compliance, one of acquiescence, one of few people giving bouncers grief. Compliance is easier for a business owner whose clientele won’t be bothered by the imposition; but what about the rest? What about the fact that just a little more than half of eligible people in the Bronx have received their first doses?

Almost every one of the people I spoke with had some sort of goofy rapport with other neighborhood characters. Paul had an older Puerto Rican guy, seemingly not on the payroll, whom he asked to go grab extra beers from the cellar. Danny was sitting outside with two older Italian men who run businesses in the neighborhood, men sharing midday glasses of wine and a pack of Marlboro Reds. Regina knew exactly what other business owners had endured recently, since she’d heard folks groaning about the authorities who’d come knocking. These people didn’t just seem there to make a quick buck; they’re people who don’t allow others in their community to be anonymous.

On my way back to the train, a Dominican-Lebanese guy and his buddy, who is rolling a joint, are sitting outside the auto body shop. They vaguely catcall me, but I play ball, and realize the Dominican dude enjoys waxing poetic about all manners of things. After 50, he tells me, life is a gift. It’s all a miracle, it’s all a blessing, do what you want. As his buddy lights up and I miss my train, we talk about the body shop business.

His cheery demeanor—giving me shit, giving his buddy shit, no end to his playfulness and nice grin—is a far cry from the restaurant owners I chatted with just hours ago, some of whom let out heavy sighs of exasperation, who said they didn’t know how they would make ends meet, who said that they don’t see the government giving them any real path forward for how to make it in the restaurant business. I can’t help but wonder whether the difference in demeanor between those trying to keep auto shops in business versus those trying to keep restaurants in business has to do, to a degree, with how suited each type of business is to weather the menace of a virus that jumps quickly from human host to human host.

Or maybe it has to do with the burdens the city has imposed; the challenges of operating in a heavily public-facing industry, one predicated on putting people at ease and making them feel cared for. What happens when the state winnows away at your ability to do that well? What’s left?


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