Frontline staff are paying for New Yorkers’ freedom to party

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New York City updates

The day after New York began requiring indoor restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues to verify patrons’ vaccination status, I went to a hair salon for the first time in weeks.

I knew something was different when I tried to walk in. A woman cracked open the door and asked me if I had been vaccinated. Even after I had confirmed, she kept me in the doorway. Once I presented my vaccine card, she visibly relaxed.

At that moment I realised that the new vaccine requirements, which meant I felt safe enough to visit indoor businesses for the first time since the Delta variant spiked in New York, had made those tasked with enforcing them feel the exact opposite. Staff are scared because some customers are angry, and there have already been incidents of verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment of staff.

We have relied on our so-called “essential workers” to risk their health to help meet our basic needs, and sustain our lifestyles, for 18 months now. These workers are disproportionately female and people of colour. Outside progressive cities like New York, they are often paid a minimum wage that they say leaves them living in poverty. Many endured cycles of lay-offs and furloughs during the first lockdowns.

Yet their requests for long-term hazard pay, for time off and cash bonuses to receive the vaccine, and for more bargaining power, have gone largely unanswered by all but a handful of the largest employers. This is likely to have contributed to a shortage of hourly workers and the proliferation of flashy incentives to draw them in.

Some public officials and business leaders have said that it would be impossible to raise their wages due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, but economists say any impact would be minimal.

The day after my salon trip, a friend who is a hostess at a bar in Brooklyn brought up her own experience earlier that week. A customer she had asked for proof of vaccination balked at the question and threatened her. His friend, who was already seated, came over to restrain him after observing his abusive behaviour.

I was appalled at this close call yet my friend told me the encounter was not that bad. The new rule had only been in place for hours but she had already seen and heard of worse incidents happening to her co-workers.

City Hall seems to know that volatile situations like this have a tendency to deteriorate quickly. The Mayor’s office is disseminating a de-escalation training webinar to restaurant operators. It says that its public information campaign means that New Yorkers should be aware of the new rules. 

“This is really the shape of things to come,” Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, said last week, after being asked if he had considered the position that the new mandate puts workers in. He went on to say the vaccine card checks are not that different from checking IDs before serving alcohol, but restaurant owners disagree. National Restaurant Association senior vice-president Larry Lynch said staff were unprepared to enforce the checks, citing the “terrifying backlash” they faced with mask mandates last year.

Violence against restaurant staff, retail workers and flight attendants skyrocketed in 2020 as they were tasked with enforcing masking and social distancing regulations. In one harrowing case, three women were charged with battery after alleging beating a 17-year-old hostess who told them that their party could not be seated together at a restaurant in Louisiana.

While it would be reckless to allow people to flood into indoor public spaces unmonitored, I also think it’s dangerous to place the burden of responsibility for our public health on some of our most vulnerable workers.

We all want to continue congregating in indoor spaces, to support small businesses and to spend time with friends and family. Verifying people’s vaccination status is the safest way to do that. 

Some businesses keep staff safe while doing so. Restaurants that can afford it have hired security guards to check vaccine cards at the door, like bouncers at a club. Others are calling reservation holders to inform them of the new requirement before they arrive, or are using reservation services such as OpenTable to keep track of diners’ vaccination status. Restaurant owners and staff say these measures reduce threats and violence but are not foolproof.

When we think about public health, we must stop thinking only about the safety of the most privileged in society. If we ever want this crisis to end, and we want our recovery from it to be somewhat equitable, we need to put the safety of our hostesses and salon receptionists first. They do not have the luxury of staying at home.

taylor.rogers@ft.com

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