No vax, no test, no service: Blind Elephant requires proof from customers, restaurateurs talk mandatory staff vaccinations

The Blind Elephant is known for its mules on tap, but now to enjoy one all barflies will have to prove a clean bill of Covid-19 health either by flashing a vaccination card or showing a negative Covid-19 test. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Blind Elephant)

WILMINGTON — “I figure since a speakeasy is very picky about who they let in, I might as well lean into it,” Ashley Tipper told Port City Daily Tuesday morning.

Tipper is the owner of The Blind Elephant  — downtown’s 1920s cocktail lounge, located in the alley between Front St. Brewery and Port City Java along Front Street. She announced that starting Wednesday, Sept. 1, the bar would begin requesting patrons show vaccination cards that match their photo IDs (a photographed copy of the card is also accepted) upon entry. Unvaccinated customers can show proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken within 24 hours.

It’s the first bar in Wilmington that has announced publicly the requirement of its customers to be vaccinated and only the second business to advertise it’s enacting the policy at all; Cameron Art Museum made its decision last week. 

RELATED: Cameron Art Museum to require visitors prove vaccination or negative Covid test

“It feels like it’s getting scary again,” Tipper said, referring to the rise of cases county-, state- and nationwide. New Hanover County has 1,498 presumed active cases with 199 deaths as of Wednesday, with the average daily number of patients in the hospital at 111 as of Aug. 27 –– higher than at the height of the pandemic.

“This is a proactive measure to make sure we can stay open and maintain a safe environment for our team and our guests,” Tipper said.

As a business owner, one of her biggest challenges to overcome — aside from keeping herself, her staff and everyone’s families healthy — is to avoid another shutdown. The Blind Elephant was closed 11 months through 2020 and lost tens of thousands of dollars, Tipper told Port City Daily last fall. 

To make ends meet, she launched a mobile cocktail program and even tried doing to-go drinks last winter, when Gov. Roy Cooper signed off on an order to help bars make it through the colder months (when bars couldn’t open at full capacity and many lacked outdoor seating).

“Bars were the first to have to shut down for Covid,” Tipper said. “We were the last to be able to reopen.”

The Blind Elephant has been open fully for only a few months since March 2020. Tipper said over the last month or so, she had to close twice for Covid-19 exposures. Each time, her staff has to be tested before returning to work, not to mention the bar undergoes a deep clean. It shaves off days of operations and in turn revenue.

One incident led to a weekend closure, the busiest days for The Blind Elephant. Instead of working behind the pine, all staff had to scramble to get tested on Friday and Saturday before the bar could open again to the public. 

It impacted the business’ bottom line by $10,000. “That is double what we make throughout the week,” she said. 

Last week, she had to endure a pharmacy run to grab all at-home rapid tests for staff to complete before they were cleared to work once again. “We know breakthrough cases are real and we don’t want to spread that to our customers,” Tipper said. 

It’s even more frustrating now to have to close, since all 11 team members are vaccinated. “It wears on you,” she added, “the stress, the constant level of alarms.”

Chef and Rx owner James Doss can relate. Doss and his wife, Sarah, who run the farm-to-table restaurant on Castle Street made the decision from the start of the pandemic to closely monitor numbers and react appropriately for their staff and customers’ safety. They closed Rx willingly last March ahead of Gov. Cooper’s shutdown, and didn’t reopen immediately when the state began easing its way back into operations last summer.

Overall, the Dosses shut down the restaurant more than three times in response to Covid-19 spikes or exposures, in turn losing 65% loss in revenue in 2020, they told Port City Daily last year.

By fall 2020, they were adding an outdoor patio to help with capacity limitations and attract diners who flocked to open-air seating more during the last 19 months of the pandemic. Rx closed in winter, at the height of the pandemic’s spread, and reopened by spring as vaccinations were being offered to restaurant workers. 

The owners went one step further in May to mandate all their staff be vaccinated. No one objected.

“The majority [of our guests] are happy that we’re all vaccinated,” Doss said.

Jeff Cousler said his customers at Savor Kitchen are similarly relieved. Cousler decided in March to take a different approach to staff vaccinations: The owner incentivized his 40 employees taking the shot(s) by offering each a $50 bonus.

“It took a while,” he said. “It wasn’t until about a month ago, most got vaccinated.”

Today, he said 95% are inoculated.

More than being compelled by money, the real reward came with dropping the masks — something the restaurateur said can often be grueling to endure on the job. Conditions tend to be hotter in kitchens and while moving about a restaurant for eight hours a shift. 

“And this time of year, when it’s super hot, it’s extremely hard,” he added. 

Cousler said he put a sign on the door informing customers that Savor staff was vaccinated and would not be masked; however, if a table requested their server wear one, they would oblige. It remains today, even though countywide mask mandates are back in place.

“The servers that work in house in the restaurant, they’re more face-to-face with clients,” he explained. “And we care about their health, so we will put a mask on if they ask.”

Cousler has no plans to require proof of vaccination or negative Covid tests of his customers. Right now, they enter masked, take it off while eating and drinking, and exit masked.

So far, few have complained, he said. 

According to Tipper, though, dealing with the public hasn’t always been smooth sailing during Covid times. It’s especially true when it comes to keyboard warriors; she had to turn off comments on the Facebook post that announced The Blind Elephant’s new vaccination policy Monday. It garnered nearly 400 varied emoji reactions (the majority in support of the decision) and 100 responses, many of which were inflammatory. However, Tipper questions if many of those comments actually come from The Blind Elephant’s customers.

“One guy posted, ‘I’m never eating at your place again,’” she explained with a laugh.

The Blind Elephant doesn’t serve food. 

“We respect everyone’s freedom to choose whether or not to be vaccinated,” Tipper added. “We’re not taking away any kind of freedom — it is totally their choice to be vaccinated. But it’s also our freedom to choose who we let in.”

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