Vaccine mandate culture wars rage on, and Noe Landini and his staff are caught in the middle.
Torn between desires to respect all customers, to comply with Washington, D.C.’s vaccine mandate, and to keep his restaurants afloat, he pleads for patience and the understanding that “mandates are not as simple as they seem.”
“We know that if you don’t comply with the mandates that there are penalties, pretty harsh penalties,” he said in a Wednesday interview with The Daily Signal. “Our game plan has always been to comply with the mandates.”
“It’s not a black and white situation,” he emphasized from his Capitol Hill restaurant, Junction Bistro, Bar and Bakery, just steps from Union Station. (Junction is a tenant of The Heritage Foundation, the parent organization of The Daily Signal.) “We train based on what the mayor’s office releases in terms of what the mandate is and how we’re supposed to deal with it and how those mandates are supposed to function.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s vaccine mandate went into effect on Jan. 15, mandating that D.C. restaurants, bars, and nightclubs require proof of vaccination and display signs outside noting that they will be requiring vaccine cards from patrons 12 and over.
Landini placed the mandated sign outside Junction, but he also put up a sign promising that Junction would not “discriminate against any customer based on sex, gender, race, creed, age, vaccinated or unvaccinated.”
“All customers who wish to patronize are welcome in our establishment,” read the sign, which quickly landed on social media. Though many praised the restaurant’s statement, others criticized Junction and falsely accused the restaurant of being “anti-vax,” Landini said.
And pretty soon afterward, Landini said, an undercover agent from the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration showed up at Junction and told the 19-year-old barista that he didn’t have proof of vaccination.
Landini said that when his employee told the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration agent that he was still welcome at Junction, the agent gave the restaurant a formal warning.
The agent also promised that if Junction did not comply, there would be more of that to come, Landini said.
The restaurant owner said that he has removed the sign promising not to discriminate against any customers, and that as of right now, he has no choice but to comply.
“I’ve always understood that because of ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] and HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] laws and regulations, that I am not allowed to refuse employment or service to anyone based on a medical condition, diagnosis, or disability and that I am also not allowed to ask for a person’s medical information,” Brian Rowe, executive chef at Junction, told The Daily Signal.
This makes the proof of vaccination requirement very confusing, the chef said.
“Does refusing service based on vaccine status not constitute discrimination?” he asked. “Is requiring a patron to show proof of vaccination not a violation of their medical privacy? How do I know if a vaccine card is real or fake? Why is an alcohol enforcement bureau enforcing a health-related order instead of the Department of Health?”
Landini owns many restaurants in the DMV area, including the popular Landini Brothers Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as Bar Deco in Chinatown neighborhood of D.C. and Donahue, a speakeasy in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. There is also another Junction location in Alexandria.
While his D.C. locations have lost both customers and business throughout the pandemic, Landini said his Virginia locations have “thrived.”
Some customers at his Virginia locations wear masks and some don’t, he said, noting that his Virginia restaurants aren’t required to check for vaccination cards and employees at these restaurants don’t fear that any agents will show up and fine them for COVID-19 rule violations.
“There’s just a lot more freedom in Virginia,” he said. “You can feel that, you can see it. We’re able to pay our bills in Virginia and all of our staff and our teammates are able to have their livelihoods they had pre-COVID in Virginia. You can’t say the same for D.C. restaurants.”
“It’s polarizing,” he added with frustration. “It’s really extraordinary. In one day and a 10-minute drive, you can see the contrast between the two.”
Landini wants his fellow Americans to learn his story and to consider his situation. Rather than taking to social media with quick and angry takes, he hopes people will be patient, and understand that restaurants and their employees under vaccine mandates are in an incredibly tough place.
“It’s not cut and dry,” he said.
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