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Cities are ditching vaccine mandates to dine out and watch shows. Did they work?

At The Dutch, a South Philadelphia breakfast spot, proof of vaccination is not required since the city lifted a mandate. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

PHILADELPHIA — Sherrell Byers figured she’d have to miss New Edition’s concert. She’d never been vaccinated against the coronavirus, and, with the omicron variant running rampant, the city had imposed a rule that only people who’d received a shot could eat in restaurants, watch a movie or attend a concert.

But just in time, city officials ended that requirement, allowing her to buy a ticket for the performance headed by Bobby Brown. No longer shunned, Byers donned a fuzzy orange coat and a disposable yellow mask on a chilly night as she walked into Wells Fargo Center, where the 76ers and Flyers play.

“I was excited we could go out and be normal people,” the 44-year-old Philadelphia resident said. “I’ll mask because I want to protect other people. … But we should be able to live our lives without being told what to do.”

Mandates requiring vaccination to enter public places gained momentum in large U.S. cities with the rise of omicron, following similar policies in France and Italy last summer. Officials embraced the prohibition as a way to keep the unvaccinated out of high-risk settings — and to pressure vaccine holdouts to get shots. They were encouraged by data showing a surge of vaccinations in France after that country shut the unvaccinated out of cafes and long-distance train trips, among other staples of daily life.

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Now, American cities are dropping those requirements as the omicron wave recedes. Public health officials also doubt whether keeping the mandates in place would persuade more of the unvaccinated to be immunized.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Feb. 15 abruptly scrapped a vaccine mandate to enter gyms and restaurants after seeing an initial burst of new vaccinations slow and hearing complaints from restaurants losing business to suburbs that didn’t have mandates. Cities including Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle soon followed. New York, the first city to announce a vaccine requirement for dining, gyms and theaters in August, will lift its mandate Monday barring a sudden resurgence of the virus.

Vaccine requirements for dining and entertainment remained in place in New Orleans through Mardi Gras and continue until March 21. San Francisco has not announced plans to lift its mandate. Both have exceptions for people who present negative test results.

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Public health officials say these rules delivered on the promise of creating safer environments and nudging at least some people to get vaccinated. Some cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, say they are prepared to bring back vaccine mandates to combat surges. But they are wary of locking thousands out of public life in perpetuity.

“During this pandemic, we had to live with a lot of public health intrusion into people’s lives, and we don’t want to do that more than necessary,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said. “And we don’t really have the right to do that more than necessary.”

The city required proof of vaccination to enter places selling food starting Jan. 3 in response to surging cases. Officials lifted the mandate on Feb. 16 as cases and hospitalizations declined, but establishments that stopped checking vaccination cards had to require masks indoors instead. At the same time, the city started giving away $100 gift cards to persuade people to get vaccinated and set benchmarks that would trigger a return of the vaccine mandate.

Restaurants and bars have mixed feelings about the rules, said Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Philadelphia region at the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.

Even before the mandate, a third of restaurants required customers dining indoors to be vaccinated, Fileccia said. Some prefer that over enforcing mask rules.

Philadelphia businesses are surrounded by suburbs and by cities across the river in New Jersey that have no vaccine mandates.

“Those folks immediately dropped [the] vaccine requirement because they were losing guests to restaurants three blocks away with no mandates,” Fileccia said.

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Twisted Tail, a Southern-style joint where whiskey options are plentiful and musicians play live blues, is keeping a vaccine requirement until at least St. Patrick’s Day out of concern for staff members who interact with vulnerable people.

Bartender Jonida Azizi feels safer coming home to her 8- and 10-year-old children knowing the unmasked patrons sitting feet away from her are vaccinated as they clink whiskey glasses and sip martinis.

Hostess Khaliah Corley, 20, was thinking of her brother and mother — both of whom have health problems — as customers fumbled to pull out their phones and track down photos of their vaccine cards.

“I did deal with a lot of people telling me, ‘Oh but they lifted it,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, but we decided to still have it,’ and they look at me like I’m crazy,” Corley said as a pianist played. “I want to be protected so my family could be protected as well.”

Research has shown high-quality masks are effective in curbing transmission and employer vaccine mandates are effective in pressuring people to get shots. But the evidence isn’t as clear whether vaccine mandates to enter restaurants and public places slow the spread of the virus. The mandates were in effect only for a couple of months in most cities, and with so much of the virus circulating, it could prove difficult to show where some people might have been exposed.

“Did these vaccine mandates work in light of omicron? The answer is we don’t know, and we wouldn’t be able to know because we don’t have a randomized controlled trial,” said Ankur Pandya, a health decision science professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Pandya and other experts said vaccine mandates still make sense to reduce transmission because research shows the virus can spread easily in crowded indoor settings. Even though shots aren’t a foolproof shield against infection, unvaccinated people were still three times more likely to contract the virus during the omicron surge, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

But the success of mitigation measures depends on compliance. In Philadelphia, business owners and vaccinated residents said they were skeptical the mandates worked because some businesses and customers flouted the rules.

Philadelphia chef Lee Styer, who owns a breakfast spot called The Dutch, questioned the value of mandates. A vaccinated customer could still have the virus, he said. But the city instructed him to turn away unvaccinated patrons even if they could show they were negative for the virus.

And then there’s the question of how reliable the proof of vaccinations is.

“If a kid comes in with a fake ID, there’s a database we can look at,” said Styer, stressing he was boosted and supports vaccines. “This is a piece of paper without a doctor’s signature.”

Because the city lifted the mandate, Styer is no longer requiring vaccination cards at the posh restaurant he opened in South Philadelphia in late February. And vaccinated customers didn’t seem to mind.

Eating a waffle smothered in gravy, scallions and chipped beef at the bar, Mac Maley didn’t notice much of a difference after Philadelphia lifted the vaccine check requirement because compliance had been spotty when he went to bars and restaurants.

“I know how weakly it’s enforced,” said Maley, who is 25 and vaccinated. “You never really know what you’re getting into.”

Cities have seen some evidence that mandates encouraged people to get a shot, especially children and young adults.

Bettigole, the Philadelphia health commissioner, said the city saw the sharpest vaccination uptick during the omicron surge among 5- to 11-year-olds. She heard anecdotal reports from vaccination clinics that parents viewed vaccinations as necessary to take their children to museums and the movies.

Vaccination rates stagnated in Boston before officials recorded a 17 percent increase in residents receiving their first dose in the week after implementing a vaccination entry requirement for businesses, a spokesman for the Boston Public Health Commission said.

In Chicago, health officials saw a particularly sharp rise in vaccinations among 18-to-29-year-olds after imposing a vaccine mandate during the omicron surge. A third of people surveyed at city vaccination clinics between Jan. 27 and Feb. 13 cited vaccine mandates to enter public places as among the top reasons for getting shots.

But health officials in U.S. cities say that with cases waning, it’s harder to justify restrictions on the unvaccinated, especially knowing that vaccine holdouts can take their business to jurisdictions without mandates.

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Chicago Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said she sees the vaccine mandate as a way to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by unvaccinated patients, not as a tool of coercion.

“I never want to put something in place that limits what people can do unless there’s a very good societal reason to do it,” Arwady said.

“If you just keep things in place indefinitely without being clear about when you are lifting them, you have the potential of losing the trust of the public, to have people thinking this will never go away or we are just doing it for a power trip,” she said. “None of that is true.”

Arwady said the mandates raised racial equity concerns as the vaccination rate among African Americans lags behind Whites and restaurants in predominantly Black neighborhoods disproportionately turn customers away as a result.

Rupali J. Limaye, a behavioral scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies vaccine uptake, said vaccine mandates for public spaces can backfire in African American communities.

“You are now essentially asking individuals who have been underserved by the health-care system to now trust the health-care system and take a vaccine just so they can go back to doing what they want to do,” Limaye said.

“It’s such a terrible way to get people to comply. It reduces trust.”

In Philadelphia, the racial disparities in vaccination are not as pronounced as in other cities because the gap has been narrowing, to 73 percent of Whites fully vaccinated compared with 68 percent of African Americans.

“Whether you are White, Black, Brown or any other racial or ethnic group and you decide affirmatively that you won’t get vaccinated, then there are things that come as a result of that, and there are places you might not be able to go,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (D) said in an interview.

Alison M. Buttenheim, a behavioral scientist and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, said vaccine mandates can act as a reward for getting a shot.

“One thing we are solving for is allowing people to live as close to a normal, unrestricted life,” Buttenheim said. “For a vaccinated person, that’s good for my mental health, connections, social interactions and feeling reassured my city is watching out for me.”

That sentiment was on display at South Bowl, a bowling alley and bar in South Philadelphia that required vaccinations for entry months before the city’s mandate. Five signs on the front doors remind customers of the rule and, inside, a framed sign hangs next to the security station.

The smell of pitchers of beer drifted through the air, Christmas lights twinkled overhead, and hockey and basketball games blared on five televisions as mostly unmasked young crowds competed in bowling leagues on a Thursday night.

This was the new normal to many players: a good time drinking, eating wings and scoring strikes without their faces covered and with assurance they are not surrounded by the unvaccinated.

“I’d rather go to places with people vaccinated,” said Phill Umidi, 39. He was diagnosed with covid in December and thinks he contracted the virus while at a child’s birthday party that probably included unvaccinated guests.

“It makes people feel safer,” said 28-year-old Seamus Tyler, one of Umidi’s teammates on the Pinsane Bowl Posse team. “But there’s still a kind of chaos in the universe. Nothing is guaranteed.”