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Some restaurants, bars are failing to follow DC's proof of vaccine entry laws

A WUSA9 investigation reveals compliance gaps. The District has already issued a $1,000 fine and numerous warnings to businesses not following the new rules.

WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after D.C. began requiring proof of COVID vaccination to enter most indoor establishments, the new law is already causing confusion.. 

Beginning on Jan. 18 -- three days after the mandate requiring bars, restaurants, gyms, and movie theatres to check vaccination records and ask for matching ID -- journalists from WUSA9 started spot-checking businesses in all four quadrants of the city to examine how closely they were following the new regulations. 

Out of 20 businesses, half of them did not check the vaccination status of the WUSA9 journalist in any form before allowing them to enter, order and eat inside -- a clear violation of the District’s mandate. Six of the 10 that didn’t check also had not posted signage now required by the city warning customers about the new rules. 

“We're in this crazy world right now where no one knows which side is up, everyone's trying to do the right thing,” said Mark Bucher, owner of Medium Rare, a steak house chain with locations across the DMV. 

Bucher says he’s already seeing his D.C. location lose sales because of the regulations, which do not yet exist in neighboring Virginia and Maryland. 

“I don't know the answer,” Bucher said. “I'm all for an ounce prevention to pound a cure. But also doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results -- that’s insanity.”

Despite Bucher’s skepticism, he said his D.C. location is enforcing the vaccine mandate. But brand-new inspection data released by the city Tuesday reveals not all businesses are getting on board.

Since the regulation went into effect, the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) has issued warnings to at least six different bars or restaurants for not checking vaccination verification. One of those bars, The Big Board on H Street in Northeast, was fined $1,000 after inspectors found three violations in five days. When inspectors came back a fourth time, and the bar still wasn’t enforcing the vaccine card entry law, inspectors referred the case to the full ABC Board for further action. 

A GoFundMe started by Harry Rodgers, a Senior Congressional Correspondent for the Daily Caller, had raised more than $15,000 (as of Jan. 25) for the purpose of “fighting against vaccine mandates in Washington D.C.” Organizers say the funds will be used to pay The Big Board's fine and others who defy the order.

Jeffrey Levi, a professor of health policy and management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GWU, says that what D.C. is doing to lower transmission rates may ultimately be undercut by Virginia and Maryland failing to implement similar guidelines to this point.

“We have an incredibly decentralized public health system in the United States,” Levi said. “And when you have such a close-knit region that has three states and multiple local health departments, this creates a lot of confusion.”

Out of those 20 bars and food establishments WUSA9 journalists checked, five of them did ask for a vaccine card, but failed to also ask for a matching ID, to verify that the vaccine card belonged to the person who was using it. In the end, only five of the 20 bars and businesses WUSA9 visited got it right, checking for a vaccination card and ID.

The operator of one of those restaurants, The Gatsby in Navy Yard, said he believed the vaccine card requirements are actually good for business.

“At Gatsby, as well as all of Knead Hospitality + Design's restaurants and bakeries, our guests have told us over and over how much safer they feel because vaccines are now mandatory to dine indoors,” Knead’s founder and principal Jason Berry wrote in a statement to WUSA9. “Now guests can remove their masks knowing that they are surrounded by others who are vaccinated. If we didn't enforce the rules at the door, our guests simply wouldn't trust we are a safe place for them to dine. Getting guests back indoors is key to the restaurant industry's recovery, especially in the winter when patios are unusable." 

Still, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which represents the interests of more than 1,400 businesses across the region, said the new rules can be problematic.

“What we have heard consistently from our operators is that the guidelines are vague,” said RAMW President/CEO Kathy Hollinger.

Yet, D.C. is far less stringent than the country’s first vaccine passport system in New York City, where anyone over the age of five has to be vaccinated to enter a restaurant or bar. D.C.’s vaccination entry system only applies to patrons 12 and up. 

New York requires employees at restaurants and bars to be vaccinated, too, while D.C. employees have no such mandate. And in NYC, vaccine cards are supposed to be checked at any restaurant that has indoor seating, regardless of whether the order is for take-out; D.C. has a carryout exception to its new rules. 

IDuring WUSA9’s test, those hybrid restaurants seemed to be the most inconsistent when it came to fully verifying vaccination status.

“We can vote with our feet and go to establishments that really are rigorous about checking," Levi said. "If they aren't rigorous about checking me, I'm going to have second thoughts about staying there, because that means they're also not checking others.”

When WUSA 9 knocked on the door of The Big Board to get its side of the story after being the first business fined for not following the new vaccine card entry law, the doors were locked. A man inside said he was running the operation, but would only identify himself as “Eric.” He refused to comment, pointing to a sign on the door saying the business was closed for routine maintenance. Eric would not answer questions about whether the bar planned to start enforcing the vaccine card entry mandate once it reopened.

After a bar or restaurant in DC is cited for not enforcing the vaccine card entry requirement five or more times, they can have their license to sell alcohol revoked, essentially shutting them down. That’s something the ABC Board could potentially consider when it gathers for its review of the Big Board. 

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