A small but growing number of bars and restaurants in San Francisco have started asking to see proof of vaccination before seating guests inside, following a recommendation from the SF Bar Owner Alliance. These bar owners and managers say they expected most of their regulars to happily show their cards — after all, this is San Francisco, where 84 percent of residents over the age of 12 have gotten at least one shot. These bar owners also fully expected the occasional belligerent bar-hopper to forget a card at home. But now, in an unfortunate but perhaps predictable turn of events, two bars and one deli are getting hit with one-star Yelp reviews and direct messages on Instagram related to their new COVID policies.
The Alembic craft cocktail bar in the Haight was one of the first establishments to implement a proof of vaccination policy in San Francisco. The Alembic reopened for indoor drinking on June 15, and at that same time, decided to ask drinkers to show proof of vaccination if they wanted to sit inside. If drinkers didn’t have their card on them, staff would accept a photo. If drinkers declined to share proof, the staff would still offer to seat them outside in the bar’s parklet. Owner Christin Evans says she put the word out in the neighborhood, so regulars wouldn’t be caught by surprise, and the response was “only positive.”
At least, that was the case until early July, when the restaurant started to get one-star Yelp reviews, which have now reached 8 in total, although some appear to be from the same couple of users. The first was from a Yelper who did not mention visiting the bar, only the proof of vaccination policy, writing, “Apparently now the owners are from Nazi Germany.” Evans said she reported that review and Yelp took it down within an hour. But the Yelper posted again, complaining her post had been taken down, and calling the new policy “medical apartheid.” (Certain anti-vaxxers have been comparing their experience to the Holocaust, claiming that they are being segregated and discriminated against, which many other people say is a gross appropriation of Jewish pain and suffering.) A second Yelper, who did mention his experience visiting the bar, said the bar is “discriminating based on medical history.” Evans kept flagging these reviews, but both Yelpers kept reposting.
It appears the first Yelper also gave one-star reviews to other SF bars and clubs, including Vesuvio Cafe, the bohemian enclave in North Beach. Vesuvio started requesting proof of vaccination on July 20, and the same day, was featured in a story by SFGate. Owner Janet Clyde says even tourists have been understanding; one young man texted his out-of-state mom to send a photo of his card, which the bar happily accepted. Within the past week, Vesuvio has received 11 one-star reviews; several do not mention visiting the bar, only the policy, and use anti-Semitic language. Clyde says she hasn’t had time to report reviews, as she’s focusing on reopening her business, although it appears that other users have, as about half have been removed for violating Yelp’s terms of service.
“We’re not responding to internet troll reviews … ” Clyde says. “Our policy is our policy. It’s there to protect our staff and families, and our patrons as well. That policy is not debatable. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come. A gin and tonic is not as important as someone’s health.”
Vegan Picnic on Polk Street appears to be dealing with not only one-star reviews on Yelp, but also direct messages on Instagram. The plant-based neighborhood deli announced its proof of vaccination policy with an Instagram post and story on July 26 and even sweetened the deal for fully vaccinated customers by offering them a gluten-free brownie the first week and a gold star, the type of sticker that teachers give to kindergarteners who do a good job. Within two days, the vegan deli has received 15 one-star reviews, from Yelpers who appear to be based everywhere from Vegas to Pittsburg. One review seized on the gold star, in particular, equating it to the Star of David.
At the time of publication, the Vegan Picnic Yelp page shows a banner saying, “This business is being monitored by Yelp’s Support team for content related to media reports,” and a pop-up notification, “This business recently received increased public attention, which often means people come to this page to post their views on the news.” So no one can leave a review right now, and anyone who wants to write about their first-hand experience with the business will have to come back later. Additionally, Vegan Picnic appears to have turned off comments on Instagram and has been screenshotting and sharing direct messages they’ve been receiving and the users they’ve been blocking.
This recent spate of negative reviews recalls an earlier stage of the pandemic when Yelpers were going after SF restaurants for enforcing mask policies. One difference is that the mask rules were mandatory, as ordered by the city at that time, whereas this new wave of requiring proof of vaccination is voluntary, with individual bars and restaurants deciding their own policies. In the East Bay, Eli’s Mile High Club and Palmetto and the Kon-Tiki in Oakland have also reported similar patterns: an initial burst of outrage, which then settles back to business, according to Berkeleyside. But internet trolls may pose one more consideration, as more restaurants and bars contemplate adding a requirement for proof of vaccination.
Christin Evans owns not only the Alembic, but also the Booksmith bookstore, and says she considers freedom of speech all the time. Evans believes the customer has every right to choose not to support a bar with policies they might not agree with, and as an owner, she respects that. But when it comes to publicly complaining on Yelp, the question is how much a public negative review will impact a small business. Both Evans and Clyde said if a review is grounded in an experience at their bars, they seriously consider the feedback. But if a Yelper from across the country is arguing with a policy, they find that unfair.
“It’s my right to pressure Yelp, to say that these are unreasonable reviews from people that were not provided a service from my business,” Evans says. “Why should my business be penalized? Judge us on the merits of our cocktails, judge us on the merits of our food, don’t judge us on our health and safety protocols.”