“This has brought out the worst in some people”: Restaurateur Jacob Wharton-Shukster on his plan to make vaccination mandatory for indoor dining

“This has brought out the worst in some people”: Restaurateur Jacob Wharton-Shukster on his plan to make vaccination mandatory for indoor dining

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Earlier this month, Toronto restaurateur Jacob Wharton-Shukster tweeted about his plan to require proof of covid vaccination for would-be patrons sitting at the bar of Le Phénix, his Queen West restaurant. Within hours, an online army of anti-vaxxers descended, and Wharton-Shukster has dealt with a constant stream of vitriol, crank calls and review-bombing ever since. Here, he tells Toronto Life what it’s like to land in the middle of the latest culture war, why he has sympathy for his trolls and how the government could do better.

You said your restaurant will be requiring vaccination for anyone sitting indoors at the bar. How did you arrive at this decision?

Well just to clarify, it wasn’t an announcement. One of our beer importers who is also a pharmacist and works at a vaccine clinic posted on Twitter to see if any bars or restaurants were going to require vaccination for indoor dining, so we responded with our plan to require vaccination at six indoor bar seats. Last summer, we didn’t open inside at all. We have a great patio setup that seats about 40 with physical distancing, and we felt like opening inside was an unnecessary risk. Fast forward to now and we started thinking maybe it would be nice for our regulars to be able to grab a drink at the bar, which has always been an important component of our business.

So you are not requiring vaccination on the patio, just inside?

At this point, we haven’t even opened inside yet, but in terms of what we were thinking, that would be to open a couple of seats by the windows where the airflow is good, and then only at the bar would we require proof of vaccination. The issue is the safety of our staff. If you’re going to be sitting across from a bartender for two hours enjoying a meal and chatting, that could lead to some unnecessary risk that we wanted to mitigate. So that was all we were trying to do: protect our staff and our business. Not take away anyone’s freedom.

Did you have any idea the kind of reaction you were going to get?

Absolutely not. Someone asked a question on Twitter and I answered it and then suddenly we have all these online commenters saying the most extreme and offensive things: that we are engaging in acts of medical apartheid, comparing us to the Gestapo, to Auschwitz. Or saying that we’re like the RCMP and this is a residential school. Or that we’re treating them “like Blacks on the back of the bus.” The vitriol really got even worse when our business got posted on a website called SafeTO-Do.ca, where they were listing businesses with vaccination policies. People shared it with comments like: “Here’s a list of businesses that I hope fucking fail.”

That website you mention opted to close down earlier this week because of all the abuse businesses were getting.

Right. It’s too bad in the sense that this person who started it was trying to do something good and to support immunocompromised individuals, and now it feels like we’re rewarding mob mentality. But I get it. People have been totally brutal. It’s not just the negative comments on Twitter. My staff have been receiving calls where they get yelled at. We have people calling and making fake reservations, and review-bombing us with a whole bunch of negative reviews. Our star fell from 4.8 to 4.3, which has a huge impact on our search results. I have reached out to Google to see if there is anything we can do, but so far I haven’t heard back.

Have you gotten any positive comments from customers who support your decision?

Oh, definitely. And there are commenters leaving positive reviews trying to balance out all the new bad ones. It’s nice to see people taking public health recommendations seriously. At the same time, we’re not trying to be crusaders. I’m not a spokesperson, and people who are not vaccinated are more than welcome to join us on the patio. We’re just politely requesting one tiny layer of extra protection. It’s about safety for our employees and it’s also about business. If one of our staff members gets infected we have to close down for 14 days, which is tens of thousands of dollars that we can’t afford to lose. 

What has life been like for you over the last week? It can’t be easy taking on a troll army.

I’m fine. I mean, this is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Mostly it’s been tough on my partner because I’ve been glued to my phone all week. I am doing my best to respond to every comment, which can get really repetitive, having the same conversation over and over again, but at the same time, I’m trying to encourage civility. If people want to have a discussion over a good-faith difference of opinion, I’m all for it. I don’t want to be dismissive because I think that’s part of the problem.

Have you received any criticism that you think is worth considering?

I think there are definitely important issues at play here. People are concerned about privacy, misuse of medical data, how our policy impacts people who can’t get vaccinated for health or religious purposes. Just to clarify, I’m not looking for anyone’s medical data and of course there should be exemptions. The problem is that there is so much misinformation out there, caused by a very small number of people and then disseminated on social media. Most of these people are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families. They are worried about living in an authoritarian state and they are concerned about a vaccine that they don’t understand. Those are totally legitimate concerns and I don’t blame anyone for having them.

But can you blame an adult engaging in obscene crank calling?

Definitely. This has brought out the worst in some people, but the real blame here is on the province for knowingly passing the buck to individual citizens and private businesses to create their own policies in absence of sensible policy or mandate. They know this is a spicy hot potato, so they have left us to take the heat.

You have 30 seconds in a room with Doug Ford. Go!  

Oh boy. I guess I would just want him to take ownership of this. We’re a small restaurant in Parkdale, and we’re getting crapped on like we’re the government. People can’t punish their politicians in the short term, so they are punishing us. I just wish Doug Ford would have the courage to do what’s right, even if it’s not what’s popular.