By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
As the COVID-19 vaccine/anti-vaccine war rages, some Asian American-owned restaurants have stepped into the fray. Along with approximately 100 other diverse King County restaurants, Watson’s Counter and Musang have decided to require proof of vaccination for dine-in service.
“A lot of the decisions that we make are for the safety of our team,” said Melissa Miranda of Musang in North Beacon Hill. Miranda opened Musang as a tribute to the Filipino food of her heritage just three months before COVID-19 hit. What started as pop-up catering for events turned into a full-service restaurant that operated as a community kitchen throughout the pandemic. Miranda felt concern for her staff as part of a profession that is hard hit.
“A lot of the breakthrough cases that have been happening have been other restaurant workers.” Musang is also allowing a proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test to dine in.
James Lim, owner of Watson’s Counter in Ballard, fell into the restaurant business by way of coffee and a science degree. He describes Watson’s as “a specialty coffee café…that has a great food program, but…also a great brunch spot that has the best coffee program.” They are famous for their Cereal French Toast and their dishes are inspired by Lim’s days spent eating American and Korean food. Lim has been taking a hard line on the pandemic since last year.
“We weren’t in a rush to open [for dine in],” he said. “Fifteen months being in pandemic mode, doing everything we can to keep each other safe, and then we’re going to throw that all out the window?”
The response to restaurants deciding to require proof of vaccination was swift and furious. Trolls took to Google and Yelp to post bad reviews to all the restaurants they could find with this policy; and swarmed social media to harass the accounts of these restaurants and their owners. The claims these disgruntled citizens have made run the gamut from “these restaurants are anti-patriotic” to “they are discriminatory.”
“The harsh ones are the ones that come in and claim racism,” Lim said. “It must be some Fox News…talking point, because they all say almost the exact same thing verbatim, ‘70% of Black people aren’t vaccinated. Why do you hate Black people?’—things like that.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 62% of all adults in the United States are fully vaccinated. Of those whose race and ethnicity could be identified, Blacks/Non-Hispanics account for 9.2%, which amounts to about 24% of the total Black/Non-Hispanic population. While there have been conversations that this low number points to racism in our system, it is a red herring in the dine-in drama because the decision to require proof of vaccination is not a racist decision for Musang or Watson’s. The owners say it is offensive since they have been on the side of people of color throughout the pandemic, and throughout their lives, who are allies with Black Lives Matter, and put their money where their beliefs are by raising funds, marching, and asking others to do the same.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, in June 2020, Watson’s, as part of a greater Asians4BlackLives movement, donated funds to Black Lives Matter from proceeds of cookie sales and other items. On June 12, 2020, they closed in observance of the March of Silence. This January, Watson’s welcomed the New Year by stating, “2021 will be different, but it’s also kind of the same. Black Lives still Matter, COVID-19 is still real…We’ll do what we do and bring you some delicious new treats, but you keep doing what you do and be a beautiful, compassionate, and loving human.”
Lim knows through his own connections that some—claiming the proof of vaccination policy is racist against Blacks—are white. To him, their appropriation of this important cause doesn’t blow it up and make it more important, like these attackers seem to wish—but trivializes it. “These people who are pretending to be Black…it’s so disrespectful to the plight that minorities have to go through…That’s the one that hits me the hardest because [they] don’t understand how difficult it is to be Black, you and I don’t understand how difficult it is to be Black. We understand that it’s not as easy as being white and there’s a lot of baggage to just use that and appropriate it just to make your point, which is a false point anyway. It’s disgusting.”
Difficult decisions such as whether to require proof of vaccination are what the pandemic has been like for businesses. They are serious decisions that impact the bottom line. Some, like Spice Waala, an Indian street food restaurant in Seattle, have determined not to require vaccine proof. Co-founder Aakanksha Sinha stated, “We recognize the public health implications for the pandemic and are taking all measures to ensure that our employees and customers are safe… not all people can get vaccinated because of medical reasons, as well as because of accessibility issues.”
Sinha and her staff are resolved to follow CDC and local guidelines. Others are reluctant to walk a hard line simply because they need the customers; or if an Asian-owned restaurant, they might fear racism will come at them if they make a controversial decision. Lim believes safety is the most important.
“If we were to be lax on COVID protocols and we find out someone gets sick and dies, it is not worth the potential extra money we could be making with it.”
To Lim, it is imperative to follow his moral compass. He admits his willingness to engage with those that disagree might have something to do with the flack Watson’s keeps getting, but he will only go so far before he breaks off the conversation.
“We’re not trying to get anybody upset…we want to be here for good food, good coffee, and good times. If you’re not enjoying who we are as a personality, that’s ok…we want people to be happy, safe, and have fun.”
“We know that it’s such a divisive time and that there are folks in the community, too, that haven’t made the decision to get vaxxed yet,” Miranda said. “These are decisions that we’ve had to make on the fly the whole year for us to take care of our team, family, and our restaurant family…A lot of folks don’t get to see the behind the scenes or understand how difficult it is for people. By no means is this for us to be divisive. It’s just based on what we…feel is right.”
The feedback hasn’t been all negative. Many customers are thrilled by the policy.
“So many people have come in and said, ‘Thank you for doing this,’ ‘We appreciate you guys asking for proof of vaccination,’ ‘We don’t feel comfortable going to most places,’” Lim told the Weekly. “Some of them come in like, ‘I’ve been waiting for so long for someone to ask me for my proof of vaccination. I’ve been carrying this everywhere and nobody asks for it!’”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.