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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh Restaurants That Require Vaccination Report Business Is Good

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Pete Kurzweg
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Courtesy Independent Brewing Company
“Many people want to return to indoor dining, and they want to do it with a place that takes their health seriously,” said Pete Kurzweg, owner of Hidden Harbor and Independent Brewing Company. “And if you’re not requiring vaccination to dine indoors, you’re not taking their health seriously.”

Three weeks ago, Spork became one of a growing number of Pittsburgh restaurants to require proof of vaccination from patrons who wished to dine indoors. It didn’t take long to learn how vehemently such mandates are opposed in some quarters.

“Immediately people came out of the woodwork just blasting us and sending threatening emails, going on Yelp and Google and giving us negative reviews — people who had never been in the restaurant,” said Sean Enright, Spork’s general manager.

The vaccination policy, however, proved to be nothing but good for business at the Friendship restaurant, he said.

“We’ve been packed every night the last two weeks,” he said Tuesday. The policy “has been enthusiastically received by our guests. They come and they thank us. We’ve had a lot of people coming in and said they’ve never been to Spork, they don’t go out at all right now, and the only reason they’re coming out is we’ve implemented that policy.”

As of this week, as few as 10 Pittsburgh bars and restaurants have a vaccination policy. All are relatively small, with seating for several dozen at most. WESA contacted the owners of seven of them, all of whom said they’ve seen their business grow in the wake of implementation, even as COVID-19, driven by the delta variant, has continued its surge.

Even a restaurant that spoke to WESA on condition of anonymity because of what its owners called “relentless harassment” from vaccination opponents is doing well.

“We’ve been extremely busy since reopening. We are completely full from the moment we open until we close the kitchen, with about an hour or more wait for a table,” the owners wrote in an email.

Other restaurateurs reported little to no backlash for their policies.

“It’s just been all positive,” said Michael Barnhouse, who with his wife, Yelena, owns Leo: A public House and Lola Bistro, both on the North Side. “Parents that live in the neighborhood and live in the community, and people that do have immune-compromised issues, they super-appreciate what we’re doing.”

Barnhouse said business at his establishments is up by a third since Aug. 9, when he started asking for proof of vaccination.

“You can kind of tell people’s faces, when they roll in. They’re, like, excited about ‘Here’s the card, here’s the photo, this is kind of why we’re here because you are requiring that,’” he said.

Barnhouse said even visitors who are unaware of the vaccination policy and are unprepared for it have been understanding.

“We’ve had people leave and then come back, like, half an hour later and thank us for what we’re doing,” he said. “They’ve gone out of their way to go get their card and come back.”

Pete Kurzweg, who owns Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor, both in Squirrel Hill, and Lorelei, in East Liberty, also said his vaccination policy has been good for business.

“Many people want to return to indoor dining, and they want to do it with a place that takes their health seriously,” he said. “And if you’re not requiring vaccination to dine indoors, you’re not taking their health seriously.”

Restaurants said one challenge is dealing with children under 12, who are not eligible for vaccination. Some restaurants merely seat them with their companions, while others ask the whole party to use outdoor seating.

Kurzweg said staff at his three establishments have been asking patrons to verbally verify they’ve been vaccinated since the restaurants reopened for indoor dining in June.

“A lot of people who are the type of folks who would be anti-vaccine have already self-selected not to come here,” he said. “And the few folks that are not vaccinated that we asked have been immediately very happy to tell us that we’re [expletives] for asking, and barge out the door.”

Kurzweg said he isn’t too concerned about people lying that they’ve been vaccinated.

“The truth serum is that if you’re not vaccinated, you’re frequently incredibly, incredibly proud of that fact, for some reason,” he said. “So we have not had a problem with enforcing it.”

Spork does ask for documentation, but Enright said the restaurant tries to make it as easy as possible, accepting not only physical documentation cards but even Instagram photos of the cards and emails from medical providers.

“People seem to think this is a political issue, and it just, from our opinion, it is 100 percent not a political issue,” he said. “It is a matter of just helping out our community in any way we possibly can as a small restaurant. We’re not trying to be divisive with this, we’re just trying to protect people.”