As Risk Rates Increase, Yelp Data Link Vaccination Rates to Restaurant Recovery

Dallas County wants unvaccinated diners to mask up again or spread out outdoors.
Dallas County wants unvaccinated diners to mask up again or spread out outdoors. Lauren Drewes Daniels
On Friday evening the Dallas County Public Health Committee unanimously voted to raise the COVID threat level from yellow (low) to orange (moderate) for unvaccinated people.

Last week, UTSouthwestern updated COVID case projections; hospitalizations have increased by 67% in the past two weeks, and if the trend continues the county could see 400-500 concurrent hospitalized cases by Aug. 9. The report warns of “levels of hospitalization by October that approach those seen in the surge in the first months of this year and substantially higher than those during the surge last summer.”

The spike is attributed to the prevalence of the more transmissible Delta variant and reflects “the large numbers of individuals who are not yet vaccinated and therefore particularly susceptible to infection.”

Despite the increased risk, there isn’t a new mask mandate or capacity restrictions at restaurants. In March, Gov. Greg Abbot issued executive order GA-34 stipulating that unless 15% of a county's hospitalized patients have COVID, “no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering.”

In terms of dining out, the newly assigned moderate risk level — again for the unvaccinated only — suggests drive-through, curbside, takeout or delivery options and outdoor seating at least six feet apart. Indoor dining for unvaccinated people is not advised. Facial coverings “should be worn by staff at all times and patrons when not eating.”

Joe Monastero, chief strategy and operations officer with the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), said restaurants need not make any changes based on the new risk level. Based on the governor's tone, he said, he suspects the state is set to continue with a strategy of personal responsibility.

"The message from the TRA is if you aren't vaccinated, carry yourself with personal responsibility, but also, why aren't you [vaccinated]?" Monastero said.

Michelle Honea, an owner of The Grapevine Bar, said the restaurant industry has been through enough in the past 16 months from unruly customers and staffing problems along with supply shortages, quality issues and price increases. From the onset of the pandemic, she's been resolute in protecting her staff and customers, but at this point says she's not making adjustments for unvaccinated customers.

"Realistically, we're not going to add asking people for vaccine cards to our already overflowing plates," Honea said, and initiating partial COVID protocols on certain customers is unrealistic.

While some continue to hold out on getting a vaccine, a recent report from Yelp ties vaccine rates to restaurant recovery. Yelp looked at consumer interest data — actions people have taken to connect with business by viewing pages, posting photos or reviews — and compared it with vaccine rates and voting data from the 2020 election.

Ten states with the highest increase in the percentage of people vaccinated in April all had average consumer interest of 25% or higher in May and June. Comparatively, eight of the 10 states with the lowest increase in the percentage of vaccinations had an increase of less than 25%.

Texas saw a 13.3 percentage point increase in vaccinations in April and a 17.3% increase in consumer interest.
click to enlarge The lower left quadrant shows states with the lowest increase in vaccination rates and the lowest level of interest in business. - YELP
The lower left quadrant shows states with the lowest increase in vaccination rates and the lowest level of interest in business.
When looking at election results, 94% of all Democratic states had a 15 percentage point or greater increase in vaccine rates in April and 19% or higher increase in consumer interest in May and June.

A restaurant in Atlanta, Argosy Restaurant Bar, instituted a “no vaccine, no service” policy after multiple staff members contracted breakthrough COVID cases. The San Francisco Bar Alliance, comprising about 500 businesses, is considering requiring proof of vaccines at the door.

PolitiFact suggests that a restaurant could refuse service to someone who cannot provide proof of vaccination since it's not discrimination based on race, gender, religion, nationality or disability.

PolitiFact explains that "several states have also voiced opposition to proof of vaccination requirements. In Texas, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Florida and Utah, state officials have passed legislation or handed down executive orders that limit the use of vaccination passports. However, measures in those states only apply to government entities and state-funded organizations, not privately-owned businesses.”
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.