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Upcoming Philly Vax Mandate Boon or Bane for City’s Eateries?

Restauranteurs in the city of Brotherly Love and the nearby suburbs are digesting the implications of a citywide mandate that requires customers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in the new year.

Some fear the guidelines give suburban eateries an edge over Philadelphia competitors forced to impose the mandate. Others are more hopeful that the mandate, beginning Jan. 3, could actually boost business for Philadelphia restaurants by making concerned potential customers feel more comfortable dining out.

“Our customers are already saying …. ‘Well, we’re just going to go to Bucks County,’” Nancy Morozin, co-owner of The Dining Car in Northeast Philadelphia, told WHYY.

The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association said about 30 percent of their businesses already required customers to show proof they were vaccinated to dine indoors before the mandate was adopted.

That could cut against the notion that they’ll be a great wave of diners hitting up the suburbs once the city’s vaccine mandate goes into effect. For the first two weeks it’s in place, customers also have the option of showing a negative test within the past 24 hours in order to dine in.

One industry watchdog says the vaccine mandate may actually encourage customers who felt unsafe dining to come out of their cocoons.

“The restaurants that were doing this showed that they were just as busy if not busier than places that weren’t” requiring proof, said Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The vaccination mandate is a better option than last year’s lockdowns which forced about one-fifth of Philadelphia restaurants to permanently shut their doors, Fileccia said. However, he acknowledged restaurateurs in the city “are rightfully concerned” after hearing from some venues that host large events who are seeing customers decide to shift those weddings, conferences, and parties elsewhere.

“Right now, if you live in Philly and you’re unvaccinated and don’t have a religious or medical exemption, your option will be to head to the suburbs to enjoy dinner out there,” Fileccia said.

That could change if other municipalities across the state follow suit and adopt similar measures.

The Pennsylvania Municipal League says some locales tried instituting vax mandates or incentive programs for employees to get the jab, but so far it hasn’t fielded a single call from anyone looking to enact its own dining-vax mandate

With more than a million residents, Philadelphia is the state’s only first-class city and may have more legal clout and autonomy to adopt and enforce stricter regulations than smaller municipalities, said John Brenner, executive director designate at the Pennsylvania Municipal League.

“Because of its home-rule charter, it would have some capabilities that other places may not have,” he said. “I’m sure it’s going to come up. There are a lot of questions like that we’re going to have to wrestle with.”

Pennsylvania has suffered more than 1.5 million infections and nearly 36,000 deaths from the coronavirus, according to state data. Of the nearly 7 million people fully vaccinated here, more than 1.2 million people are in Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties, data show.

Eric Nagy, a spokesman for Bucks County, told the Delaware Valley Journal while there may be an appetite for a local vaccine mandate from people “on both issues,” it is “not something” county commissioners are contemplating.

That is reassuring news to people like Tom Darlington, owner of the Great American Pub in Narbeth, who called Philadelphia’s dining-vax mandate “terrible” for owners still recovering from the “irreparable harm” they suffered during the pandemic.

He feels the mandate will cause consternation for businesses negotiating an issue that has divided people along party lines. And, he said, the case could be made that the practice is discriminatory as vaccine hesitancy is higher among certain groups.

“Asking for vaccine cards is basically, in my opinion, the government forcing private industry to police government policy,” he said. “I believe the idea of asking for vaccine cards is so against American ideals. It reminds me of Nazi Germany.”

Darlington understands the argument that requiring diners to show proof they’re vaccinated is no different than some of the other health and sanitary rules and regulations that all eateries in Pennsylvania are already required to follow. But he still believes it comes down to people choosing what’s right for themselves. He mentioned two family members who died shortly after getting vaccinated. He couldn’t be sure whether their deaths were linked to their decisions to get vaccinated.

“Where do you draw the line?” he asked. “COVID is a killer. I’m not downplaying that. There are people who say, ‘Hey listen, I’m vaccinated. I want to go out and enjoy a good time that’s not dangerous to my family.’ … It’s a matter of control, and it all goes back to if you’re going to just mandate it for indoor dining, make it across the board for everything.”

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Concern Over Omicron Variant Rises, But Not Support for Vax Mandates

The appearance of COVID-19’s Omicron variant has reignited the already heated debate over vaccine mandates.

While President Joe Biden continues to support government-backed vaccine edicts, his policy has suffered setbacks in court. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp issued a 32-page order blocking a federal mandate on healthcare workers in facilities that accept Medicaid and Medicare.

“Congress did not clearly authorize CMS to enact this politically and economically vast, federalism-altering, and boundary-pushing mandate, which Supreme Court precedent requires,” Schelp wrote.

Days earlier, another court struck down a mandate on businesses with 100 or more employees imposed via the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

But even with nearly 80 percent of adults having received at least one shot and new variants like Delta and Omicron in play, Americans remain largely ambivalent regarding mandates.

A recent Scott Rasmussen poll found 48 percent of voters approve of the Biden administration’s attempt to mandate COVID vaccines for all workers at companies with more than 100 workers, while 46 percent oppose it.

Support has fallen in the last two months with 54 percent approving the idea in mid-September and 37 percent against it.

A possible reason for the decline is 63 percent of voters have experienced supply chain problems, Rasmussen noted. And 59 percent favor relaxing vaccine mandates to ease those problems.

The survey also found some 53 percent do not believe the president has the legal authority to impose his order on private companies, up eight points since September. And just 30 percent believe he does have the authority to implement his mandate.

Asked to comment, some Delaware Valley politicians had differing views on whether Biden’s OSHA mandate on large employers should go forward.

“Congresswoman [Mary Gay] Scanlon does not support H.J. Res. 65, which would disapprove the emergency rule proposed by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) relating to ‘COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard,’” said Carina Figliazzi, a spokesperson for Scanlon. “The congresswoman has read the proposed OSHA rule, which does not issue a blanket mandate vaccination, but rather proposes measures by employers to strongly encourage vaccination in the workplace and includes an exception for employers that adopt a policy requiring employees to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work. Having read the underlying rule and its justification, she finds the rationale and the proposal for the emergency temporary standard to be well-reasoned. Widespread vaccination and adherence to public health measures is our most effective path to conquering the pandemic.”

GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, on the other hand, opposes a government vaccine mandate.

“While I firmly believe getting vaccinated is the best protection for most against COVID-19, penalizing those who abstain and their employers is not good policy nor is it the role of the federal government,” Toomey said. “With a fine of $13,650 per violation, the outlined requirements from the Biden Administration will further alienate the skeptical and could easily force an employer that has taken considerable steps to encourage vaccination among its staff to be penalized, cut employees, or even close its doors. I will be joining many of my Republican colleagues in an attempt to revoke this mandate via the Congressional Review Act in hopes of stopping it before it causes unnecessary harm.”

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan tried to walk a tightrope on the topic, claiming she supports the “spirit” of mandates but is concerned about their impact.

“In the midst of the pandemic, many think that our businesses and their teams can either be economically strong or be physically safe (when it comes to COVID-19),” said Houlahan. “That’s a misperception – we can be both. I support the spirit of the OSHA directive, especially considering the insurmountable scientific data showing the safety and efficacy of vaccines. And at the same time I’m also an entrepreneur, and mindful of our businesses’ challenge to comply given the hardships they’ve faced these past couple of years. I’m confident we can come together and find solutions that work for everyone. Instead of co-sponsoring legislation to dismantle the OSHA policy, I look forward to continuing to work with employers in my community and the Administration to find real solutions.”

And Republican gubernatorial candidate Guy Ciarrocchi, who took a leave from his job as president of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, believes big government is not the solution.

“Biden’s vaccine mandate is misguided and bad medicine,” said Ciarrocchi. “First, our national vaccine rate is good and getting better. This is a big government action in search of a problem. Second, from airlines to hospitals, we are seeing what happens when mandates cause walkouts or work interruptions that harm more people than any mandate would help. Finally, many of these mandates are directed at the very people who worked tirelessly and selflessly to get us through the COVID-era. Those who we considered Heroes for most of 2020 and 2021 are now being portrayed as villains.”


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