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Why this Seattle business owner is 'ecstatic' about King County's new vaccine rule

caption: Cafe Lago pasta chef Justin Dissmore rolls out a very long sheet of pasta. Cafe Lago in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood has been requiring indoor patrons to provide proof of vaccination against Covid-19 since August, 2021.
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Cafe Lago pasta chef Justin Dissmore rolls out a very long sheet of pasta. Cafe Lago in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood has been requiring indoor patrons to provide proof of vaccination against Covid-19 since August, 2021.
Courtesy of Carla Leonardi/Cafe Lago

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says local businesses have already been leading the way on measures like proof-of-vaccination requirements to combat the pandemic.

Carla Leonardi owns one such business, Cafe Lago in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood.

Leonardi says she was "ecstatic," even "euphoric" when she first learned that Seattle and King County would require patrons to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result.

It's a rule she and her staff have been enforcing on their own since early August. In fact, a collection of bars and restaurants around Seattle have required customers to show proof-of-vaccination.

"We did worry a bit about the legal implications of it, if someone was going to be that upset at us to perhaps want to take us to court about it," she says. "But we went ahead and did it anyway. So, it's really great to have the county's support backing us up."

RELATED: King County will require proof of vaccination at bars, restaurants, and more

She notes, however, that other local, small business owners weren't prepared to take that leap on their own. Leonardi heard some attorneys even advised against businesses implementing their own policies to avoid any risks.

But for her, it was a choice between accepting the risk and keeping her staff safe.

"My staff, they were the impetus for it. They were the ones who came to me," she says. "They were more than willing to implement it ... I wouldn't have done it otherwise."

King County proof-of-vaccination

King County's new rule that will go into effect on October 25 for most indoor dining and other indoor nonessential businesses, such as gyms and theaters, as well as events with more than 500 attendees. Small restaurants with seating for 12 or fewer customer won't have to comply until December 6.

There is one wrinkle for customers who may not be on board with the policy. King County is not requiring businesses to check proof of vaccination against a customer's ID. Individual businesses can choose to take that additional step; Leonardi says she hasn't gone that far.

"There's room there for someone to cheat it," she acknowledges. "But we're going under the assumption that our customers are being straight-up with us."

caption: Cafe Lago server Zawadi Manning and bar manager Kyle Novak check the night's reservations.
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Cafe Lago server Zawadi Manning and bar manager Kyle Novak check the night's reservations.
Courtesy of Carla Leonardi/Cafe Lago

The state is working on an app to streamline this process — both for individuals and for businesses — that might be up and running later this month or in early October, before King County's requirement goes into force.

The majority of her customers haven't been an issue anyway, she says. They've already been following this rule for the last month with little griping.

And people who feel especially outraged by the rule may just remove themselves from the situation proactively.

Customer reaction

Other than one Facebook user who left a "colorful" expletive-ridden rant on Cafe Lago's Facebook page, Leonardi says the response has been almost entirely positive.

Two disgruntled people claiming to have been devoted customers did email Leonardi by Friday morning. They weren't especially "heinous," though.

She read one for KUOW's Morning Edition host Angela King, which you can listen to below.

Dear Cafe Lago...

Dear Cafe Lago...

One of those people caught her attention, in particular, because "they're not against the vax, they're against showing me your card." The writer claimed to be vaccinated.

They also wrote, "Your support of an overreach law is not your job or your place, but it is your choice."

Leonardi says it is exactly her job and her place, however. She's not alone in that feeling.

Business reaction

In a statement to KUOW, Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes is putting his full support behind the measure.

"We're in a really strong position as a city and a county," he says. "And if these mandates help us get to 90-plus percent [of eligible people vaccinated against Covid-19], then they're a good thing. Because vaccinations are the only way we put an end to this pandemic and move forward as a community."

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan expects that will be the sentiment of many businesses in her city.

The new requirement will be enforced the same way the mask mandate was: on the basis of customer complaints, and starting with education for business owners before escalating to fines. Still, some are saying the new rule puts the burden of both verification and stopping the spread of the virus on some more than others.

Anthony Anton is the president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. In a statement to KUOW, he says the county's rule creates different standards for different types of businesses.

"The data shows without a doubt that Covid spreads everywhere, and any policy to reduce the spread must similarly apply everywhere," he argues. "Anything less than that amounts to using our industry — which has been the hardest hit by far — as a carrot-and-stick for the small percentage of people in King County who have been unwilling to be vaccinated."

RELATED: What 'crisis care' could look like as WA hospitals surge with Covid patients

Melissa Miranda, owner of Musang in Beacon Hill, says the rule may even the playing field by eliminating the element of surprise for customers.

She, like Leonardi, began requiring patrons to be vaccinated or show proof of a recent negative Covid test weeks ago; unvaccinated walk-ins may be asked to get take-out instead, with few exceptions made to accommodate medical conditions.

"We actually posted [an announcement about our requirement] on all of our social media platforms and the reason why," she says. "It's also located on our website. It's like the first thing that you see before you make a reservation ... It's more than one space that you see that it's required. So guests can really, truly feel that they have all the information."

Once the rule is implemented countywide, business owners like her will be able to really, truly know that's the case.

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