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What’s to complain about? Earlier vaccine mandates led to zero enforcement despite complaints

In a mandate imposed on Jan. 19, Minneapolis and St. Paul-licensed eating and drinking establishments were required to check that patrons dining in were either fully vaccinated or had a negative COVID-19 test from within the last 72 hours.

COVID-19 vaccination record cards
COVID-19 vaccination record cards
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

For nearly a month earlier this year, Minneapolis and St. Paul had required food and drink establishments they license to check the COVID-19 vaccination cards or for recent negative tests of people eating or drinking indoors.

Issued via executive orders by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, and effective Jan. 19, eating and drinking establishments were required to check that dine-in patrons were either fully vaccinated or had a negative COVID-19 test from within the last 72 hours. The requirements took effect for ticketed events, such as concerts and sports games, on Jan. 26. The cities rescinded the requirements on Feb. 10 as COVID-19 cases began to decline.

In the 22 days the executive orders were in effect, both cities received complaints over restaurants not enforcing the mandates, but neither took any enforcement action, according to city officials.

Complaints

Minneapolis and St. Paul were far from the only cities to impose vaccine-or-test requirements during the pandemic. Similar measures were taken in many large cities, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and King County, Washington (Seattle), earlier in the pandemic amid efforts to tamp down on COVID-19 spread in venues where people were eating or drinking.

Minneapolis and St. Paul had both previously imposed mask orders for indoor businesses and events, but it wasn’t until the steep increase in cases caused by the omicron wave in the New Year that the mayors issued vaccine-or-test requirements for indoor dining and ticketed events.

In St. Paul, the vaccine-or-test requirement didn’t actually apply to all dining establishments in the city. St. Paul licenses its bars, but the state licenses restaurants in the city. That’s been the case since 2013, when the state took over food service regulation in St. Paul after finding the city wasn’t meeting health and safety standards.

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Now, the state licenses roughly two-thirds of restaurants, including coffee shops and fast-food restaurants, that don’t have liquor licenses, per the Pioneer Press. St. Paul’s mandate only applied to businesses that are city-licensed — those that sell alcohol.

According to city data, St. Paul received 27 complaints related to the vaccine-or-test requirement while it was in effect, including complaints about many restaurants and bars and a bowling alley. One complaint accused a large sports venue of not checking cards, but the order had not yet taken effect for ticketed events.

In one case, a caller complained that a West Seventh eating and drinking establishment was handing out fake Melvin Carter vaccine cards that called the mandate a “HIPPA” [sic] violation.

In another, a complaint detailed a situation where a patron entered a restaurant, vaccine card at-ready. “The hostess stated that she did not want to see them because I am not going to be a middle man for the city,” the complaint reads.

St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) first works to educate businesses that are not following new regulations or policies after they take effect. It took the same approach with the vaccine-or-test executive orders, St. Paul DSI spokesperson Suzanne Donovan said in an email. 

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In cases where violations of the order were reported to the city, staff contacted licensees to ensure they understood the new requirements. No criminal citations were issued in relation to the vaccine-or-test requirement, Donovan said.

Minneapolis’ policy was broader in scope than St. Paul’s because the city licenses bars and restaurants.

While the policy was in effect in Minneapolis, the city received 23 complaints about businesses not following the vaccine-or-test requirements. They include complaints about bars, restaurants and a coffee shop. One complaint reported that a downtown gym wasn’t checking for vaccines or tests, but the didn’t specify whether food or beverage was being served at the gym that would make the vaccine-or-test rule apply.

Minneapolis also took an educational approach versus a punitory one, and didn’t take any enforcement actions, city spokesperson Sarah McKenzie said in an email.