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Ready your vaccination cards: D.C. businesses prepare to enforce new mandate

Rule goes into effect Saturday for customers at restaurants. bars, gyms, concert venues and more

Effective Jan. 15, all guests ages 12 and older will be required to show proof of vaccination to enter Capital One Arena. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said the Washington Mystics play at Capital One Arena. The team moved to the Entertainment and Sports Arena, in Congress Heights, in 2019. The article has been corrected.

Starting Saturday, people across Washington, D.C., will need to flash a vaccination card and matching ID before catching a game, grabbing a drink or hitting the gym.

Over the past few weeks, businesses have been gearing up to implement Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) new mandate, which requires patrons of indoor businesses to show proof of vaccination and matching identification. The new rule will be enforced for sit-down restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and most other public places where people spend long periods sitting inside. Grocery stores, retail stores and houses of worship are among the locations exempt.

“We already have people at the door checking IDs, so it’s just another step of the process,” said Peter Bayne, a co-owner of D.C. bars Franklin Hall, Church Hall and Penn Social, the giant sports bar in Penn Quarter. “If anything, it’s just another way to help us make sure that person is who they say they are.”

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D.C. joins a number of other major cities across the country that already have, or are rolling out, such policies to help curb the spread of the coronavirus and push people to get vaccinated.

The mandate is the latest in a list of ever-changing safety guidelines that small businesses in the District have had to navigate over the past two years of the pandemic. Some owners say they worry about losing out on business or difficulties that might arise while enforcing the new rule. But many said they were optimistic about the new mandate and see it as a way to keep businesses open and customers safe.

“I’m glad that the alternative this time was to initiate the vaccine mandate and not have to shut down small businesses that are the lifeblood of the city,” said Darren Norris, owner of restaurant Shibuya Eatery and bar Death Punch, both in Adams Morgan.

Dozens of businesses around the District had already laid the path of asking for vaccination cards — some implementing the requirement as early as last summer, others just getting a head start on the mandate after Bowser announced it in late December.

Franklin Hall began asking customers for proof of vaccination back in August, Bayne said, because staff at the Florida Avenue NW beer hall expressed concern about catching the virus. (Its sister establishments did not institute similar checks.)

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At the beginning, “we had a couple of angry customers,” Bayne said. “Some people wrote some nasty online reviews; we had some difficult people at the door. But our team is just used to handling that as it is already, so we just brushed the dirt off our shoulder, so to speak. If anybody’s being difficult, or it’s just not somebody we want to deal with, we just move on to the next customer. We don’t have to let everybody in.”

Debra Mishalove, founder of Flow Yoga Center, a yoga studio with two locations in Logan Circle, has been requiring proof of vaccination for indoor classes since the studio reopened. When weather permits, the studio also hosts outdoor classes, for which vaccines are not required.

“We knew that when we were going to open up again, it was going to be the best thing for the community,” Mishalove said of the requirement. “It was a sort of no-brainer for us. Most of our community through surveys and conversations let us know that was what they would be most comfortable with.”

Mishalove implemented an online system for clients to register ahead of time and submit a copy of their proof of vaccination. It’s made the process smooth and easier for staff.

“It hasn’t been dramatic for us at all,” Mishalove said. “We feel really lucky.”

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The mandate will be in place for venues that accommodate larger crowds as well. Most performance venues in the city, such as the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage and 9:30 Club, already had required proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend performances.

On Saturday, Capital One Arena, where the Washington Wizards and Capitals play, will join those other venues in requiring proof of vaccination for fans entering the stadium.

Earlier this week, Capital One Arena General Manager Jordan Silberman held up his cellphone to show a flashing green light on the screen. He was demonstrating Clear, a free verification app, that the arena is encouraging fans to download ahead of their events. The app allows guest to upload their ID and vaccination status to create the green pass to show upon entry.

“All you have to do is throw up the green screen, and we know to let you” in, Silberman said.

Attendees who do not use the Clear app will be able to show a physical or photo copy of their vaccine card along with a valid ID. The arena had used the process for a handful of concerts last year, Silberman said, and he feels confident it will be a smooth transition.

“Like everything, there’s a learning curve for fans and for staff,” he said. “But, it’s going to become second nature for everybody, just like going through security or mobile ticketing. It’s new at some point. Something’s always new.”

Less than a block down G Street NW from Capital One Arena, Brian Leonard owns the bar Free State, as well as Lost and Found, a bar just across Ninth Street NW from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center — two venues that attract their share of visitors who don’t live in D.C.

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When Leonard adopted vaccine entrance requirements at his bars last August, he said, he was expecting some pushback from out-of-towners. But it hasn’t been as bad as he initially thought.

“Literally, the first day we put the rule in effect, there was a convention in town, and there were people from Florida all over the place. I was like, ‘Oh, great. This is the first day. There are going to be issues,’" Leonard said. But “people were coming up to the door with their cards out. There were a couple groups that didn’t, and every single time, there was someone in the group who turned to the person who didn’t have a card and said, ‘I told you you would need it in D.C.!’"

In the early days, Leonard said, there were customers “who were caught off guard, not expecting to have offer some proof of vaccination — more from the convention center than the Capital One Arena.”

But since then, at least for people from the D.C. area, it hasn’t been a big deal to flash a photo of their proof of vaccination on their phones. Leonard said he’s excited about the city mandate, and hopeful that word will spread to visiting out-of-towners.

“It takes a little of the heat off us, in terms of, 'Why are you doing this but the next guys down aren't?'” he said.

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Donna Durante-Miller, owner of the Elroy, a bar and hookah lounge situated on the east end of the H Street corridor, is not quite as upbeat about the new policy. She was already worried about how much longer her bar will be able to stay open, she said, and she worries the mandate could bring an even larger dip in business — especially among some of her unvaccinated regulars.

“It was such a hot topic that I chose not to actually ask a lot of people. Some people were just so adamant in their reasons for not [getting vaccinated], and I didn’t want to debate with people, so I didn’t ask,” Durante-Miller said. “But, now we won’t have a choice.”

She’s already dreading having to turn away regulars whom she’s grown close to over the years, she said. But, ultimately, Durante-Miller said she knows this is the right move for the city, and an important way to encourage more people to get vaccinated.

“So, you have to say goodbye to some folks and hopefully meet some new ones,” Durante-Miller said. “It’s definitely something that would be beneficial for Washington, D.C., to kind of get back on track.”

She’s even implementing her own incentive program. Elroy patrons who show proof of vaccination — which will be everyone in the door on Saturday — will receive free shots to ease the transition.

“You got a shot,” Durante-Miller said, “you get a shot.”