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Coronavirus In Seattle
caption: A sign that reads "no shirt, no shoes, no vaccine, no entry" is posted outside Linda's Tavern on Capitol Hill, Monday, August 2, as they and many other area bars and restaurants have begun requiring proof of vaccination for their patrons.
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A sign that reads "no shirt, no shoes, no vaccine, no entry" is posted outside Linda's Tavern on Capitol Hill, Monday, August 2, as they and many other area bars and restaurants have begun requiring proof of vaccination for their patrons.
Credit: Genna Martin for KUOW

No shirt, no shot, no service: Bring your vaccine card to Capitol Hill

CC Attle’s, a bar on Capitol Hill known for its stiff drinks and leather nights, asked customers to see their vaccination cards back in May, before anyone else.

“It was a very frightening decision, because I know how polarizing this decision can be,” said owner Chris Daw.

Some customers were angry, but most came to appreciate how much safer they felt inside the bar. After all, the bar had lost customers to the coronavirus.

The checks went away for a short, glorious period, when it seemed the virus was dissipating. But then the delta variant rallied, and workers at nine or 10 Seattle bars got Covid. That led to more than 60 bars around the city creating a united front, requiring vaccines so people don’t just cross the street.

Shelley Brothers, co-owner of  Wildrose ("the country’s oldest lesbian bar"), said the mask policy just wasn’t working last month.

“When we were on the honor system, of people wearing masks inside that weren’t vaccinated, no one was wearing a mask,” Brothers said.

Across the street from the Wildrose was one of the bars with a Covid breakout, the Unicorn.

Wildrose staff was disappointed, Brothers said.

“Everybody was like, 'I can’t believe we have to go through this again.'”

Bar owners debating a vaccine check policy have had to weigh the gratitude from vaccinated customers against the frustration from unvaccinated customers.

They must listen to their consciences too, while deciphering vague guidance from public health officials.

Messaging here from public health officials has been an issue since the start of the pandemic.

Bar owners, an empathetic and tolerant lot, don’t like bossing around their customers – cutting people off, forcing them to wear masks.

But even though these vaccination checks feel like another form of parenting, it eases their minds. It lets them pretend that, at least in their little corner of the world, life is back to normal. They just have to shut out that part of their brain that knows they’ve just excluded potential customers.

For Rhino Room, which serves a broad clientele, the vaccination check policy has been costly.

The owner said he saw a huge reduction in business after he started checking vaccination cards. He said business was down about 60% from the week before, when they weren’t requiring proof.

Their crowd is younger, which isn’t as vaccinated. The owner said that he watched as people headed for places that weren’t requiring proof of vaccination. He understands why a bar wouldn’t check.

“We were all closed or wildly underperforming for the past 16+ months,” he said. “There is a need to recover those funds so it's easy to understand why some businesses aren't getting on board.”

“I feel like we blew our chance to get this under control,” he said.

Diesel was among the places the unvaccinated could go when this reporter walked around the neighborhood. (Diesel: “Bears, Bikers, Buddies, Bubbas, Blue Collars and Bad Asses").

"It’s to your discretion if you want to wear a mask or not,” said a bartender named Tucker. “We’re not requiring a vaccination card at the moment. We’re thinking about it, though.”

Tucker said the bar hadn’t been checking because it would mean paying someone to stand at the door.

“We’ve already been closed down for a year,” he said.

Customer Joe Wright said he comes to Diesel when it’s relatively empty, because they don't check vaccination status.

“We’ve talked about being a little bit surprised that they’re not doing it here yet, and a couple of other places,” Wright said. “We’re just surprised that they haven’t jumped on that bandwagon.”

Wright said if Diesel were to check vaccination status, he would show up more often.

“So many of us have gone out, we’ve had our vaccines, we’ve done what we need to do,” he said. “I don’t want to sit at home because those individuals choose not to go out – and be vaccinated. Let them sit at home.”

Back at CC Attle’s, the first bar to check for vaccination, owner Chris Daw said the coronavirus brought back memories of the AIDS crisis, owner Daw said.

“A lot of us older gay men have lived through that,” he said. “We need to keep each other safe like we did in the '80s. We needed to talk about things that make us uncomfortable, and push us outside our comfort zones.”

Daw said it’s been awkward for Seattle bars and restaurants to (vaccine) card people. Seattle is a progressive city, he said, that wants people to have the freedom to make their choices.

"We don’t want people to feel bad about those decisions,” he said. “But in matters of life and death, sometimes you need to make people feel bad.”

On a recent evening there, customers debated the vaccination checks. Seattle has hit over 80% vaccination rate, one customer said. Isn’t that good enough?

“It makes me feel safe especially from the fact that I take care of two elderly family members," his companion replied. "I can come out and feel safe that I’m not going to bring something back.”

Daw said he wishes public officials had messaged vaccines as a patriotic duty, instead of leaving the burden on bar owners like him.

But he’s been willing to lead this movement, however uncomfortable it might be. “You live your life as you’ll live your life,” Daw said. “But decisions have consequences.”

Produced for the web by Isolde Raftery.