As It Happens·Q&A

No vaccine? 'You can't come in,' says San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance

The San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, which has 500 individual members representing 300 bars in the city, is recommending its venues require patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before coming inside.

The organization representing 300 venues says bar owners must protect their staff and their bottom line

People enjoy drinks at Beaux in San Francisco on March 5. (Brittany Hosea-Small/Reuters)

No vaccine or negative COVID test, no service. That's the official policy of the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance.

The organization, which has 500 individual members representing 300 bars in the city, is recommending its venues require patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before coming inside. 

The policy, which comes into effect Thursday, isn't mandatory, and it'll be up to individual venues to decide whether and how to enforce it.

But Ben Bleiman, the organization's founder, says the vast majority of members support it 100 per cent. He owns two bars in the city, Soda Popinski's and Teeth. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa. 

Why did you want to do this policy change?

About three weeks ago, we started … hearing over and over and over again from bar owners whose staff were coming down with COVID, who are all vaccinated. And this has, you know, huge real-world effects on us.

First of all, the staff, we want them to be safe. And their symptoms weren't hospitalizing, thank God, but they lost their taste, they lost their smell, they were out of work for a week. 

A lot of them have small children ... who can't get vaccinated. So they're terrified about infecting them. And then, you know, we're already having a staffing shortage in San Francisco, and you lose a bunch of staff members, who are out for a minimum of 10 days, it's hard to find staffing, and a lot of us had to shut down. One of my bars actually had to shut down last week because my bartender contracted COVID at a different job of his, and he was fully vaccinated. So, you know, it's not hypothetical here. It's hitting us right where it counts.

We decided that we had to do whatever we could to protect our staff, first and foremost, and their families. I mean, that's our kind of sacred obligation. And then, of course, our customers. And then thirdly, our livelihood, our ability to pay our bills.

I was like, what if we just say: "You can't come in. You can sit outside, but you can't come in."

And all of a sudden I had this just overwhelming response from my membership, where everybody's like, "Yeah, we should do that."

I said, "OK, well, let's do a poll." 

So I did one of those fancy Facebook polls that let you ask one question. And I put out to the group and we had many, many responses ... and over 82 per cent of our membership said they would support making that the official position of our group.

Are staff required to be vaccinated?

Yes. It's not part of this policy, but that's kind of the standard.

Ben Bleiman is the founder of the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance. (Submitted by Ben Bleiman)

So what's the reaction been to the policy, not just from bar owners and staff, but from would-be customers?

It's funny, you know, everybody says, "Well, you're going to get protests or people getting upset." We've literally had none of that. Every single person that's written in or that we've spoken to at our bars has been overwhelmingly supportive of this. 

I think it just shows how, you know, certainly shows how conscientious San Franciscans are. You know, we have a much higher vaccination rate and a much higher trust in crazy things like science than other places do.

But I also think it shows how kind of marginalized this small group of selfish people are and how, you know, vaccinated people are starting to come around and say: "Wait a second, this isn't just a virus we can't control here. This is actually a virus we can control. But we're not because of the choices of a very small group of selfish individuals."

We're not trying to change hearts and minds. We're just trying to protect our staff and their families. And if some hearts and minds are changed because of it, fantastic.- Ben Bleiman, San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance 

What sort of directives have you given your bouncers and security to deal with folks who may inevitably cause a fuss at the door?

Look, people causing fuss at bar owners' doors in San Francisco is nothing new, right? This is not new territory for us. We deal with it every single night. We sell a volatile, controlled substance that makes people drastically alter their behaviour, right? 

Across the city, we have really well-trained security professionals who are used to dealing with numbnuts on a daily basis. So this is really the least of our concerns as a bar community. I imagine, for other businesses, that may be top of mind to them, but for us, it's not that big a deal.

I mean, we're trying to be really kind to people. We're trying to offer them places they can sit outside. If they want to come and try to use the bathroom, they're welcome to. They just have to wear a mask doing it.

A pair enjoys dinner at Canela Bistro and Wine Bar in San Francisco. (Brittany Hosea-Small/Reuters)

Seventy-seven per cent of San Francisco residents over 12 have been fully vaccinated. So [of] that remainder, obviously, there is a big group of people who are anti-vaxxers, but there are some people who either haven't been able to get a vaccine or can't get a vaccine. So considerations are made for that as well?

Yeah, if you couldn't get a vaccine, you're welcome to bring a 72-hour negative test. And actually, anybody can do that, can bring a 72-hour negative COVID test if they want to sit indoors. That's totally fine, too.

Are you hopeful, or would you want to see other bar associations across the country take this on?

Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Everybody has to make their own decisions and how best to enforce things. But look, we know we're not going to put COVID behind us until these wilfully ignorant folks who can get a vaccine, but don't, go out and get a vaccine. Or else will be dealing with this for years and years and years.

We're really hoping that people will go out and get vaccines. That is not why we're doing this, though. We're not trying to change hearts and minds. We're just trying to protect our staff and their families. And if some hearts and minds are changed because of it, fantastic. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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