The interior of the Kon-Tiki in dowtown Oakland. Credit: Melati Citrewireja

Two Oakland restaurants — lush steakhouse Palmetto and tropical cocktail and small plates spot Kon-Tiki — will soon require all patrons to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, co-owner Matt Reagan told Nosh. But while Reagan said he’s concerned about the prospect of refusing to serve diners who don’t have proper documentation, the owner of a nearby bar that only allows the vaccinated says that the venues should expect an uptick in business after the restrictions are put in place.

The changes at Palmetto and Kon-Tiki will begin gradually, Reagan said. Starting now until Aug. 2 (at the latest), everyone will be welcome, but when patrons enter the restaurant, they must be masked. When patrons sit down, they can pull out their vaccination card or show the QR code from California’s intermittently-functional digital COVID-19 record. “You’ve got that, congratulations, you’re a responsible citizen and we want to reward you,” Reagan said. Therefore, those patrons will be allowed to remain maskless for the duration of their stay, while those without proof of vaccination must mask up when not actively eating or drinking, or any time they interact with staff.

After Aug. 2, a date Reagan said was chosen to “give everyone time to get used to the rules” but could move up if cases sharply increase, anyone who wants to drink or dine indoors at either location must show proof of vaccination or provide a negative COVID-19 test from within the last 72 hours. It’s an imperfect system, Reagan acknowledged — after all, COVID-19 tests are hardly infallible — but “this is what we brainstormed and came up with.”  

“We don’t want to leave anyone out,” Reagan said of any potentially unvaccinated patrons, “so this seemed like the best solution.” After all, he said, “people need to get tested to get on an airplane.” 

Reagan and his business partners made this decision as COVID-19 case rates shoot up across Alameda and Contra Costa counties. “Responsible people are already beginning to avoid indoor dining,” Reagan said, as the region’s hospitals again fill with patients, almost all of whom are unvaccinated. “I want diners at our restaurants to feel like we are taking it seriously and are taking steps to prevent more spread.”

Even though he clearly believes that this new policy is the right decision for his restaurant, Reagan still sounds apprehensive about potential blowback. “Either way we turn, we’re going to turn some people off,” he said. 

Since May 2021, patrons of Eli’s Mile High Club — indoors and out — must provide proof of vaccination to enter. Credit: Sarah Han

Billy Joe Agan knows something about turning people off. He’s a co-owner at Oakland dive Eli’s Mile High Club, the live music venue that made headlines in May when it announced that all patrons must provide proof of vaccination to be admitted. The bar’s May 18 Instagram post announcing the new policy led to a commenter culture war, with social media users predicting that the restrictions would destroy the business.

Instead, Agan told Nosh Wednesday, “we are doing great.” In fact, he said, “our numbers have been a little bit higher than they might have been normally,” when compared with the summer of 2019. But while he said that the vaccinated-only policy has definitely helped Eli’s draw in more customers, it’s also true that “just generally, places that are open are doing better.” 

It’s clear other bars and restaurants around the Bay Area have considered Eli’s a bit of a mohawked, beer-swilling canary in the COVID-19 coal mine, watching it closely to see if its strict rules would tank the spot. But on Tuesday, SF Gate reported that beverage lobby the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance might recommend that its 500 members require vaccinations for patrons. Nosh asked the East Bay Venue Coalition, a similar group on our side of the Bay, if it was mulling a similar action, but that question was not responded to as of publication time.

When told by Nosh about Reagan’s plans for his venues, Agan responded with glee. “Good! The more the merrier!” Agan acknowledges that the clientele at a swanky restaurant like Palmetto or a clever tiki spot like Kon-Tiki might differ from those at a grungy punk bar like Eli’s, but suggested that the patrons at upscale businesses might welcome these restrictions more, not less.

According to Agan, other than the nasty comments on social media, “things have been easy-breezy.” He says that maybe once a day, they have to turn down an unvaccinated patron, but that that those folks don’t make a stink. It’s more common, Agan says, that a vaccinated person will forget their card at home. “They work it out, go back and get it or whatever,” he says. “It’s not a big deal.”

Of course, said Reagan, “some people will lie,” providing fake documents. When asked if he’s seen many fakers at Eli’s, Agan is dubious. “Maybe?… But we’re in the most vaccinated part of the country and [falsifying documents] seems like a lot of work.”

In the end, Agan says, Reagan should expect an initial flurry of outrage from “a handful of people,” and then “a net positive for their public image.” Finally, he says, Reagan should expect the peace of mind that comes with knowing that his business is filled with people who are unlikely to fall ill.

“The Delta variant doesn’t worry me,” Agan said, as “everyone that’s in the building is vaccinated.” That worry-free atmosphere is what Reagan is clearly hoping for. “Given the percentage of people in Alameda County who are vaccinated, I’m willing to reward them. For the people who are unvaccinated, I still want them to come in, but I want them to be free of COVID.”

It’s worth remembering here that most folks don’t go into the restaurant or bar business because they want to be hall monitors or behavior cops — this is a role forced on them by the pandemic, one that each chef, server, bartender and bouncer is trying to figure out as they go. 

“We were so scared when we had to educate people on wearing masks,” Reagan said. “We lost a lot of sleep over that,” especially after seeing how negatively diners in other parts of the country have behaved when asked to follow simple rules. But people at his bar and restaurant followed mask rules without too much trouble, so he’s hopeful the same will be true as the industry grapples with yet another dangerous spike in infections. Palmetto and the Kon-Tiki’s new rules are because  “I have to keep my staff healthy and employed,” Reagan said, and because “I want my patrons to know they can come in and be safe.”