First day jitters: NYC businesses have mixed feelings over new indoor vaccine mandate

The “Key to the City” opens the doors for some, but closes them for others.

The Big Apple has now officially adopted an indoor vaccine mandate that took effect Tuesday, Aug. 17, requiring those planning to workout in gyms or eat inside restaurants to show proof of having received at least one of the life-saving shots.

Customers are required to present either their physical vaccine card or the electronic Excelsior Pass to establishment employees, who must police who can stay and who must leave based on their vaccination status. This is the latest initiative to convince more New Yorkers to get the jab by, in the words of Mayor Bill de Blasio, giving them a “Key to the City.”

However, with businesses throughout the five boroughs already suffering extended closures, rent deferrals, and the loss of staff, some shopkeepers wonder if they can handle another potential loss of clientele resulting from the mandate’s enforcement.

Crunch on 222 East 34th Street is not concerned about the mandate; in fact, they are proud of the way in which they are implementing it. Spending the first half of the pandemic closed, like many other businesses, they waited until their facility was permitted to open following CDC guidelines, and now they continue to utilize a hybrid model for their members.

A Crunch gym member shows her vaccination card. Photo by Dean Moses

Isidro Montero, the district manager for the Manhattan East Side sector of Crunch, feels optimistic for the future as more members return to the facility and is excited to have the gym back to life.

“Right now, we are getting into the swing of things. We got the classes back, we got the saunas reopened, and then with the new mandate obviously it feels a little safer to be in the club,” Montero said.

In preparation for the proof of vaccination mandate, Crunch hosted conference calls with all of its district managers and provided directives to its gyms regarding the inspection of inoculation cards. For the past four days, Montero says the staff has been having continuous training sessions while the new mandate rolls out.  

Prior to this week’s regulations, Crunch sent out blast emails to its members informing them of the updated policy. Upon a guest’s arrival, a membership is scanned followed by the Excelsior pass or their card as proof of their vaccination. Montero says once this information is scanned into their system, they will not be required to show proof again.

Gym members are asked to show their Excelsior Pass or vaccination card starting August 17. Photo by Dean Moses

“We have over 3,000 registered gym members that submitted their vaccination right away. We’ve had zero negative feedback,” Montero said, adding that it makes himself and his fellow employees feel safer.

While many are deciding if they wish to schedule their vaccination appointments, Crunch will allow unvaccinated members to use the facility with a mask donned until Sept. 13, at which time only fully vaccinated individuals will be authorized inside.

Nimble Fitness, an independent gym on 42 East 12th St., say they are grateful for a health focused and understanding customer base who have been working with them throughout the hardest months in their two-and-a-half-decade tenure, yet they do admit that attempting to meet a revolving door of requirements has been akin to hitting a moving target.

Celene Lucas, director of operations at Nimble Fitness examined a vaccination card. Photo by Dean Moses

“It has been like a moving target and a roller coaster ride. I think we are really fortunate that we have been able to roll with everything and it is all about our clientele and staff, they have been so supportive and understanding that things are changing and we just are going to have to change with it,” Celene Lucas, director of operations at Nimble Fitness explained. 

The gym has been in business for 15 years and focuses on one-on-one personal training, tailoring exercise needs to fit the individual. Nimble Fitness has also been able to offer virtual training as a result of the pandemic, which gives the independent gym some wriggle room in terms of the mandate and to continue business at a person’s home.

Still, one of Lucas’ largest concerns going forward is the lack of guidance regarding enforcement.     ​​

“Today it goes into effect and the enforcement of it is like Sept. 13, so between that month period the idea is people have the opportunity to become compliant, get vaccinated if you are not or, if you are a staff member, to figure out what we can do to accommodate you. I am not sure what the enforcement of it looks like, and that’s where I really want some guidance from the mayor and from the City, so that businesses are not left in the dark. We should not be penalized when that time comes because it has not been communicated to us what that enforcement looks like,” Lucas told amNewYork Metro.     

Vaccinated individuals are able to exercise without their masks, while unvaccinated must keep their mask on. Photo by Dean Moses

Sentiments of confusion like these are shared by fellow independent business owner Vladimir Grinberg, who feels the mandate is serving up a headache for his restaurant.  

A Jewish, Russian immigrant, Grinberg has been the proud proprietor of the Organic Grill a vegan restaurant on 123 First Ave. for over 20 years. His concept of creating healthy food as a holistic approach to better living has garnered him a dedicated clientele as well as a continuous flow of curious tourists.

However, like many small businesses the pandemic crippled his restaurant with the constant, ever-changing mandates in combination with many of his patrons who he states has moved away from the city after the virus.  Due to the steady decline in patrons, he now works five to six days a week with a skeletal kitchen staff while he serves the dishes, answers phone orders, online orders, deliveries, and more. 

“I didn’t anticipate it would be so hard, at the beginning my wife and I contemplated if we should stay or should we close,” Grinberg admitted, adding that they decided to remain open to prove that healthy vegan food still has a place in the Lower East Side. 

Grinberg, however, did not foresee his business having to persevere through one storm after another. 

“It seems like it’s never going to end. It’s not like you overcome an obstacle and you can work again. We are literally always at 50% of our worst day pre-pandemic. If I didn’t work by myself and have a limited staff, we wouldn’t be able to afford to stay,” Grinberg said. 

Vladimir Grinberg runs back and forth throughout the Organic Grill serving customers. Photo by Dean Moses

Grinberg believes that in the beginning of the pandemic an inadvertent “stigma” was placed on the hospitality industry, particularly restaurants. The ever-shifting rules of indoor capacity, outdoor dining, and now the mandate has made, for Grinberg, the entire concept of eating in a restaurant a stressful experience for both the owners and guests. 

“I don’t have an expert opinion; I understand that something needs to be done but this is one of the many things that need to be done. Not the only thing. If someone is trying to implement the mandate, it definitely does not have to come from the vendors,” Grinberg said, adding that he was not given specific instructions on how to verify the immunization cards. 

He believes that there should be someone from a city agency or specific volunteer that could be deployed to the many businesses to help check the immunization cards, since several restaurants are already struggling to have a full staff.

For Grinberg who has to scramble back and forth in his restaurant and the small outdoor space he has been allotted — the Organic Grill is positioned in front of a fire hydrant preventing him from having a larger outdoor space — checking vaccine cards is another added task that he has to perform now. 

With the future uncertain for this longtime business owner, his hope is that some of his old customers and friends will return to him once again.

“We are really, really concerned and we are doing our best,” Grinberg said.