NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - It began as a simple request that is becoming part of New York's pandemic routine: A host at a popular Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side asked three would-be customers for proof that they had been vaccinated as required for those seeking to dine indoors.
But the encounter quickly escalated, as the customers, women from Texas, became irate and refused to provide the proof needed to enter the restaurant, Carmine's, police and a restaurant spokesman said. The host offered to seat them outdoors, where such proof is not required.
"It just erupted from there," said Mr Jeffrey Bank, chief executive of Alicart Restaurant Group, which owns Carmine's.
The tourists began to punch the host, who is 24, leaving her bruised and scratched and breaking her necklace. She was evaluated at a hospital and is now resting at home, Mr Bank said.
"It's obviously upsetting," he said. "She knows that she didn't do anything wrong."
Restaurants across New York City have been grappling with how best to adhere to the new mandate, which requires people to prove they have received at least one dose of a virus vaccine before dining indoors and which began being enforced Monday.
Most of the burden of enforcement has fallen on restaurant employees, particularly front-of-house staff members who are typically the first to engage with customers.
"We're forced to play these cops," said Mr Adam Keita, an owner of Daughter, a coffee shop in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. "Our goal is to serve people coffee. Our goal isn't telling people how to live their lives."
The tourists involved in the episode at Carmine's were identified by police as Kaeita Nkeenge Rankin, 44, and Tyonnie Keshay Rankin, 21, of Humble, Texas, and Sally Rechelle Lewis, 49, of Houston. They were arrested and charged with assault and criminal mischief before being given desk appearance tickets and ordered to return to court on Oct 5.
Late Friday, a lawyer representing the women issued a news release in which he said they all had vaccination proof that had been "questioned arbitrarily and unjustifiably" because they are Black and that they had not tried to "forcefully violate" the requirement that they show it to enter the restaurant.
The lawyer, Mr Justin Moore, also said the host had been injured when other Carmine's employees restrained her after she took offence at being "called out for racial discrimination".
Mr Bank denied Mr Moore's claims. "The facts are not going to bear that out," he said.
The altercation came as Mayor Bill de Blasio continues his push for New Yorkers to get vaccinated, using a mix of mandates and incentives. The city imposed several sweeping vaccine requirements this summer, including for health care workers and government employees.
The strategies appear to be working. During a Friday (Sept 17) appearance on WNYC Radio, Mr De Blasio said that 80 per cent of adults in the city and almost 70 per cent of those aged 12 to 17 had gotten at least one vaccine dose.
Last month, New York became the first US city to require customers to prove they had received at least one dose of a vaccine before partaking in indoor dining and activities like live performances, gyms and movie theatres. Fines start at US$1,000 (S$1,340) for businesses that fail to enforce the mandate, with penalties increasing for repeat offences.
Several city agencies are responsible for checking to ensure that the policy is being enforced, including the consumer affairs and health departments and the sheriff's office.
As of Friday, the city had conducted 5,440 inspections and issued 2,176 warnings, said Mr Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mr De Blasio. No fines had been issued.
"This disgusting and violent behaviour has no place in New York City, and it's entirely unacceptable against service workers who are keeping staff and patrons safe," Mr Schwartz said in a statement. "The city provided restaurants with conflict resolution training in recent weeks, and we'll continue doing everything we can to help them adjust to this program safely and smoothly."
Mend NYC, a citywide initiative that offers free mediation and conflict-resolution services, created a video to teach business owners and workers de-escalation techniques to use when enforcing the mandate.
The video, uploaded to YouTube last month and also available on the city's website, is a 20-minute narrated slideshow with tips to help workers identify signs of aggressive behaviour and to help them communicate and empathise with customers. It had fewer than 3,000 views as of Friday.
Restaurant workers said in interviews that they felt they had been unfairly saddled with the burden of enforcement and that they, rather than the city, had been forced to become the first line of defence.
Mr Manuel Roque, a line cook who works at restaurants in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint sections of Brooklyn, said he was frequently dispatched from the kitchen to ease tensions with customers and did not feel equipped to deal with conflicts over the mandate. The city, he said, had not provided enough formal training on how to deal with such situations.
"You don't pay me to be a bouncer," Mr Roque said. "Now restaurant workers have to deal with hungry people, and angry people, and doing an extra job, and we're not getting paid for that." Mr Roque said he had several friends in the restaurant industry who had recently been punched by patrons, including a bartender who was attacked while asking for proof of vaccination.
Mr Keita of Daughter, who said he had not witnessed violent outbursts over the mandate, has instructed his staff to ask for vaccine proof in a soft tone or at a slow pace so that customers are not offended.
But he said he was worried that when the cold winter weather arrives and reduces options for outdoor dining, businesses will start to lose customers again when they have to deny service to unvaccinated people.
"Is the city also going to be there to support us financially when we have to turn customers away because of the mandate?" he said. "If you're asking us to do the dirty work, are you going to be there for us?"
Mr Sean McCloskey, general manager of de Mole, a Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg, said city officials had left restaurants on their own to come up with enforcement plans.
In light of the altercation at Carmine's, Mr McCloskey said he planned to spend time with his employees Friday night running through the restaurant's protocol for dealing with customers who refused to show vaccine proof. But, he added, the city should have offered more guidance.
"They put all the onus onto the ownership and the people running the restaurants," he said.
Mr Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a trade group representing restaurants and bars, acknowledged that the city had offered some training for enforcing the mandate, such as the video on de-escalation techniques, which was included in some of the city's emails to businesses. The city has also co-hosted information sessions with his organisation, he added.
But he believes the city needs to do more to educate tourists and out-of-towners on the vaccination requirement, and to send a clear message that anyone who assaults workers for enforcing the policy will be prosecuted.
"Regardless of what a person's opinion is regarding vaccine requirements, respect restaurant workers," Mr Rigie said. "They're just trying to make a living and do their job."
There are likely to be plenty of tourists who do not object to New York's proof-of-vaccine mandate. Ms Sue Cole, who plans to visit the city from Mexico this Christmas, is among them.
Interviewed on Friday, Ms Cole said the requirement would help ease her mind when she is out and about, especially since she expects to attend crowded Broadway shows like The Lion King.
"Anything to stop this stupid virus," she said. "I'm so behind that."