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The highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19 is explosively spreading among the unvaccinated. Fears of breakthrough infections and efforts to stem the tide threaten to throw restaurant owners, workers, and diners alike into further uncertainty.

For a few months, it seemed like the U.S. was on the path toward post-pandemic life, with constant mask-wearing and endless anxiety largely a thing of the past. Highly effective, widely available vaccines had curbed case counts and allowed people to gather safely across the country throughout the spring and early summer. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the fully vaccinated could, for the most part, stop wearing masks indoors. Diners and restaurant workers alike were able to relax as bars and dining rooms filled back up and friends met to celebrate some form of normalcy.

But the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant — which now comprises some 80 percent of new infections in the U.S. — amid low vaccination rates in certain parts of the country has changed the national outlook: Another wave of the pandemic appears to loom. Nationally, new cases have been spiking, to an average of almost 67,000 on July 28 — more than quadruple the number of daily cases one month ago — and there has been a surprising uptick in reports of vaccinated people contracting the virus, in what are known as breakthrough cases.

On July 27, following weeks of scattered reinstatements of mandates and regulations in cities where cases have recently surged, the CDC reversed its mask guidance for vaccinated individuals, signposting that the tide has turned again in the fight against COVID-19. The agency now recommends that fully vaccinated people should still wear masks indoors if they are in “an area of substantial or high transmission,” which covers about 66 percent of U.S. counties.

In response, calls for mandatory vaccinations are growing, but the issue, along with mask mandates, has become so politically charged that governors and local politicians continue to debate whether or not to reinstate regulations — with some leaders even deliberately stoking ire around pandemic regulations for political gain. Restaurants and bars are, once again, caught in the middle of a crisis they have little control over, just as many are attempting to get back on their feet after a calamitous year and a half. With unclear messaging and little government support, life stands to be more difficult, yet again, for restaurants attempting to follow and enforce COVID protocols to keep their staff and diners safe — while hoping to avoid the kind of restrictions that defined dining out for most of the last 18 months.

In the days and weeks leading up to the CDC’s revised universal mask guidance, some localities did take matters into their own hands as they scrambled to contain the virus, encouraging — and in some cases, requiring — people to put their masks back on. In California’s Bay Area, seven counties banded together on July 16 to strongly recommend mask-wearing for their citizens, in response to a rise in cases as the delta variant spreads. In Los Angeles County, where the COVID-19 positivity rate jumped to 3.75 percent — more than triple what it was a month earlier — an indoor mask mandate was reinstated on July 17, barely a month after it was first lifted. Though the change did not come with a renewed capacity limit for restaurants, diners must now wear masks indoors when they aren’t eating or drinking.

Following the reinstatement of indoor mask mandates in Los Angeles, other cities around the country followed suit. In Savannah, Georgia, an indoor mask mandate was reinstated on July 26, and is set to extend for at least a month. This mandate requires both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals to wear masks in “government buildings, hospitals, early childhood centers, elementary and secondary institutions and federally regulated transportation.” Restaurants are encouraged, but not required, to enforce the mandate. Savannah’s mayor, Van Johnson, said in a press conference that the return to mask-wearing was a response to the tripling of COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks; he attributed the spike to a combination of group gatherings, low vaccination rates, and the highly aggressive delta variant. A mask mandate was also reinstated in St. Louis County on July 26, and another is set to go into effect in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 2. But the measure in Kansas City is already being ferociously opposed by Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, who claims his aim is to protect people’s freedoms — illustrating the deeply uncertain political and regulatory environment that restaurants are working within.

The recent uptick in cases of COVID-19 across the country has been fueled by the explosive spread of the delta variant in unvaccinated individuals. The strain was first identified in December 2020, and caused a devastating spike of cases in India as it tore through the country; it has since become the dominant strain of the virus in the United States. The World Health Organization describes delta as the “fastest and fittest” variant, highlighting the threat it presents, particularly to unvaccinated people. “Delta is spreading 50 percent faster than alpha, which was 50 percent more contagious than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2,” said F. Perry Wilson, a Yale Medicine epidemiologist, in conversation with Yale Medicine. “In a completely unmitigated environment — where no one is vaccinated or wearing masks — it’s estimated that the average person infected with the original coronavirus strain will infect 2.5 other people… In the same environment, delta would spread from one person to maybe 3.5 or four other people.”

Though there is evidence of breakthrough infection among fully vaccinated people, it’s overwhelmingly unvaccinated people who are being infected by the delta variant. “The most important thing that we need to say is that we have a lot of this country that has a lot of viral burden. That’s driven a lot by people who — and mostly — by people who are unvaccinated,” Rochelle P. Walensky, the CDC director, said at a news briefing. “Most of the transmission across this country is related to people who are unvaccinated.” The unvaccinated currently represent more than 97 percent of those admitted to the hospital.

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In many parts of the country, unvaccinated people who choose to drink and dine indoors are at high risk at the moment, according to experts like Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst and professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, who said in an interview with CNN that “if you are not vaccinated right now in the United States, you should not go into a bar, you should probably not eat at a restaurant. You are at great risk of becoming infected.”

It’s been clear for some time now that COVID spreads more easily in indoor spaces without adequate ventilation, and especially in restaurants. It’s also clear that face coverings help reduce the spread of the virus: In March 2021, researchers at the CDC published evidence that counties with mask-wearing mandates across the U.S. experienced fewer COVID infections and COVID-related deaths than counties without such mandates.

Despite the growing fear of breakthrough infections, the risk to fully vaccinated individuals remains low. Experts nonetheless encourage those who are vaccinated to take more than their own health into account when making decisions. “It’s a reasonable time for us to be a bit more cautious,” says David W. Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If we are talking about groups of people where everyone in that group is vaccinated, the risk to that group and to others around them [in a restaurant], is relatively low — I would say low enough to be something that would be safe.”

The delta variant is concerning, but Dowdy emphasizes that the rise of breakthrough cases is not a sign that vaccines are ineffective: The chances of contracting COVID have simply gone up as we all come into contact with greater numbers of infected people. “The vaccine is not 100 percent effective, and you’re going to run up against a certain number of unvaccinated people in your daily life,” he says. “Let’s say that in a month you’re going to be in contact with 100 people who are unvaccinated. If one out of those 100 is going to have COVID, and you’re vaccinated, you’re most likely not going to get the disease. But if 10 of those people have COVID, then your risk of getting that breakthrough infection just went up 10 times. Everyone’s risk of a breakthrough infection in the past month has gone up four to five fold, because we’re just seeing that much more infection.”

Dowdy says that wearing a mask indoors when vaccinated provides additional protection, and encourages others who may not be vaccinated to do the same. When a certain portion of the population takes off their masks, Dowdy says that it becomes more likely that others — including those who are unvaccinated — will follow. “If you don’t want to get sick, and you’re vaccinated, the best thing you can do is your small part to get infection levels down in your community.” According to Dowdy, that means wearing a mask whenever possible. “From a practical perspective, the only way that you’re going to get unvaccinated people to wear masks as a large group is going to be to require that everyone does.”

Over the past few weeks, the sense that we’re not out of the woods just yet has grown among restaurant operators, who have begun taking extra precautions beyond state or local mandates: maintaining distance between tables, prioritizing outdoor dining instead of indoor dining, requiring workers to be fully vaccinated, and requiring diners to wear masks, show proof of vaccination, or both if they wish to eat indoors. No one Eater spoke to for this story is closing just yet, or changing course on reopening, but the surge in delta variant cases — and the reemergence of mask mandates in some cities — is yet again changing how restaurant operators are thinking about safety protocols inside their dining rooms, even in areas like Boston where vaccination rates outpace the national average.

Anthony Caldwell, who owns 50Kitchen in Dorchester, Massachusetts — and has never lifted his restaurant’s mask requirement — told Eater in May that he was nervous about the loosening of state guidelines because he thought it would allow unvaccinated people to behave in a way that wasn’t safe. “It creates an honor system, and we know there are a lot of people who aren’t honest,” he said.

In San Francisco, where community spread is substantial, the Bar Owner Alliance, which represents about 300 bars across the city, is recommending that local bars check for proof of vaccination before allowing patrons to gather indoors beginning July 29. Its president, Ben Bleiman, who also owns a pair of bars, says that checking for proof of vaccination is “what we need to do to protect our staff and families … The data doesn’t lie. I don’t care what Joe Rogan says. People who are unvaccinated are much, much more likely to hurt somebody who is unvaccinated.”

Across the bay in Oakland — where COVID cases have also spiked in recent weeks — the Kon-Tiki and sibling restaurant Palmetto are requiring that guests show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test before they enter. Co-owner Matthew Reagan says that it was yet another tough decision after a year and a half of tough decisions, and he knows it will turn some people off, but in the end he and his business partner had to think about the health and safety of their staff and customers. “As much as this can be seen as authoritarianism or altruism, it’s also a business decision,” he says. “We have staff with friends who are vaccinated and testing positive — some with symptoms, others without — and they’re worried … We don’t want to get anyone sick.”

Yalonda M. James/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As it stands, however, it’s another burden that falls on individual restaurant operators and their overworked staff. Replying to a tweet about the SF Bar Owner Alliance’s decision to recommend its member bars check for vaccination cards, Pim Techamuanvivit, the owner of the critically acclaimed restaurants Nari and Kin Khao, wrote: “Unless the city make[s] it a mandate, then you’re leaving it to vulnerable restaurant workers to face potentially volatile situations on our own.”

Throughout the pandemic, restaurant workers have dealt with an epidemic of angry customers over masking requirements and other COVID safety protocols, which sometimes led to outright abuse or assault. As long as local and state legislators don’t act to reinstate COVID restrictions, restaurant workers and operators will be the ones tasked with enforcing the rules at individual restaurants that choose to tighten protocols. “Unless there is some concerted effort from the city, from the county, or from the state to help us enforce it, it’s just a paper tiger,” Techamuanvivit told Eater. “Until the city, the county, or the state comes up with some standardized way of proving someone’s vaccination record without violating their privacy, and also make it easy for us to be able to verify these things, then I don’t know how we’re supposed to do it.”

At Techamuanvivit’s restaurants, guests are still expected to wear masks whenever they’re not seated at their tables, and her staff must be fully vaccinated and continue to wear masks at all times. But that’s as far as she feels she can go, short of legislative intervention. “When there was a mask mandate, even when it was a mandate from the city and from the county, it was such a mess,” says Techamuanvivit. “And this is even worse, right? Requiring to see someone’s evidence of vaccination or tests?”

“You’re creating all of this potential for explosive interactions.”

The situation is more dire in states like Texas, whose legislature has put health and safety at the bottom of its list of priorities throughout the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and reopened the state’s economy at 100 percent long before the vaccine rollout began in earnest — the state still has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country — leaving restaurant workers (and guests, even the angry ones) more vulnerable to the virus.

Roots Chicken Shak owner and Top Chef contestant Tiffany Derry, who operates restaurants in food halls in Austin and Plano and a brick-and-mortar just outside of Dallas, kept a mask mandate for guests and staff for much of the pandemic, an unpopular decision in Texas. In an essay for Eater in March, she wrote that she was “overcome with a mix of emotions — mostly shock, anger, and disbelief” when Abbott rescinded the state’s mask mandate.

“In Texas, we are already feeling the effects of Gov. Abbott’s decision,” wrote Derry. “Restaurants like mine are starting to see backlash from guests who don’t want to support us for trying to keep everyone safe. Some businesses have received threats, guests have caused public scenes, and Yelpers are leaving negative reviews based on mask policies.”

Months later, Derry and her business partner Tom Foley continue to recommend that their staff wear masks, but they are no longer requiring that their guests do so. “We take a firm stance that this is a health issue, not a political issue,” says Foley. “But masks have breached and straddled health and politics, and sometimes those recommendations are not understood in terms of health prioritization.” In other words, masking has become such a politically contentious issue in Texas that restaurant operators don’t feel as if they can possibly require customers to wear them inside their restaurants, even amidst a new surge in COVID cases.

In what might mark a tidal shift, Danny Meyer, one of the most influential restaurateurs in the country, just announced that his New York-based Union Square Hospitality Group will require proof of vaccination from all indoor diners and drinkers, as well as current employees and new hires. “This is the most logical thing I’ve ever seen,” Meyer said on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “I’m not a scientist, but I know how to read data and what I see is that this is a crisis of people who have not been vaccinated, and I feel strong responsibility, on our part as business leaders, to take care of our team and our guests, and that’s what we’re doing.” Meyer says he’ll give employees 45 days to get vaccinated.

For some operators, business has been tough for more than a year, so the latest mask mandate doesn’t really change much in terms of trying to remain open. John and Roni Cleveland, owners of Los Angeles restaurant Post & Beam, told Eater they’ve required that staff and guests wear masks since the beginning of the pandemic. They don’t anticipate that a second mandate — or a proof of vaccination requirement — will affect business any more than the pandemic already has.

Back in Oakland, Reagan of Kon-Tiki noticed that sales had gone down as infection rates began to spike in the Bay Area. But in the last week, after beginning to require proof of vaccination or a negative test result, according to Reagan, sales, price per ticket, and server tips have already gone up — indicating that where there is some level of assurance about COVID safety, diners may remain undeterred about venturing out.

“We’re not taking a position on why or why not to get vaccinated,” says Reagan. “But we’re saying that customers and staff are both demanding it, and we just want to make sure we’re not getting anyone sick.”

Still, the delta variant marks a concerning new twist in the pandemic, and threatens to pull diners, restaurant workers, and business owners alike into further precarity, where one thing remains certain: The best thing anyone can do is get vaccinated and wear a mask.

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