Berkeley to end vaccination requirement for indoor dining, gyms

The requirement that restaurants and other businesses check vaccination status ends Friday.

Quiandra Watson makes a drink at Berkeley’s Gold Leaf Cafe while owner Leanne Shamszad (background) grinds coffee beans. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Berkeley will soon drop its requirement that patrons show proof they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 before they can exercise at a gym or eat inside a restaurant’s dining room.

Public health officials announced Wednesday morning they will end the proof of vaccination requirement as of Friday for Berkeley’s bars, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and many other indoor services and events. The mandate will remain in place for large indoor events with more than 1,000 people.

The requirement was implemented about six months ago, during a surge of cases driven by the delta variant, and applied in settings where the risk of COVID transmission was higher because customers breathe heavily or remove their face masks to eat and drink.

Now, though, Berkeley is joining other cities with similar requirements in dialing back those efforts amid a steep decline in cases. San Francisco’s public health office also announced Wednesday that its requirement will end Friday; New York City did the same earlier this week.

Public health officials wrote in a news release Wednesday that they strongly recommend businesses “continue to encourage vaccination of employees and patrons,” despite the end of the mandate.

Of course, businesses in Berkeley can set their own policies requiring customers to be vaccinated for services — much like they can continue to ask patrons to mask up after the city lifted its face covering requirement last month. However, thus far, none of the restaurants contacted by Berkeleyside have confirmed that they’ll continue to check for vaccinations on their own.

For example, though the website for Saul’s Deli (1475 Shattuck Ave.) said that “We have now all had our second vaccine and almost all team members are boosted. We hope you’ll do the same for us,” hope appears to be the operative word. According to owner Peter Levitt, as of Friday, “We won’t inquire” about vaccination status, and “staff will mask optionally,” both inside the restaurant and outdoors. Masks for patrons have been optional at Saul’s since that mandate lifted last month.

Rates of new COVID cases have plummeted in Berkeley since a wave driven by the highly contagious omicron variant crested in mid-January, and have continued falling over the three weeks since the mask mandate was lifted. The city’s seven-day average of new COVID cases stands at 23.5 per 100,000 residents, down from a peak of nearly 180 two months ago.

Meanwhile, city spokesman Matthai Chakko pointed to Berkeley’s high vaccination rates — 92% of residents are considered fully vaccinated, and 58% have gotten a booster shot — which he said kept hospitalizations low during the omicron surge. Now, with the virus far less prevalent and much of Berkeley’s population protected from severe disease, Chakko said, health officials are comfortable ending the vaccination mandate.

“The surge has dropped substantially,” Chakko said. “The urgency to have that tool in place is diminished.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.
Eve Batey (she/her) is the editor of East Bay Nosh. Email: eve@eastbaynosh.org. Twitter: eveb.