ITHACA, N.Y.—New signs now adorn the colorful walls of the Rhine House, a recent addition that serves as both a safety measure and a constant reminder of the times we live in. They read: “The Rhine House is currently VAX ONLY!”

The bar is part of a growing trend of COVID-19 vaccination requirements as businesses try to avoid becoming a vector of infection as the Delta variant contributes to seemingly daily jumps in positive COVID-19 cases both locally and nationally. The Rhine House is certainly not alone in the crusade, as at least The Range, Moonies, Level B and possibly more bars (if you know about more, let us know!) around the area are implementing a vaccination requirement for entry, applying to all patrons.

“When the positive cases started ramping up […] It seemed like that wasn’t going to stop anytime soon,” said Kate Conroy, the owner of the Rhine House. “So I talked it over with my staff, everyone was on board to give it a try and see if we could pull it off.”

There’s obviously risk involved with such a move, even more so considering the contentious nature of vaccines and particularly the COVID-19 vaccines. But rather than alienating a large portion of their customer base, Conroy said the policy has actually been quite well-received. Patrons who are vaccinated simply feel safer in an all-vaccinated environment, Conroy said. There’s been some disappointment among regulars who aren’t vaccinated, but they’ve avoided the confrontations that have made headlines elsewhere over vaccination requirements.

A spokesperson for The Range, which was the first local bar to announce its own vaccination requirement, echoed the sentiment.

“The vaccination policy at the Range is that all people in attendance must be 100 percent vaccinated. This includes staff, musicians and patrons. This policy applies to all hours we are open,” he said. “So far the feedback has been mostly positive. Many guests have told us they feel safer in a fully vaccinated venue.”

The Range actually had a limited outbreak of its own, with three people, all of whom were fully vaccinated, contracting COVID-19 during an event at the bar earlier this month. The spokesperson said that, at that event, not every guest had been asked about their vaccination status, but that the establishment had “updated our protocols and staffing” in order to ensure the situation wouldn’t recur (he also made a point to deny the rumor floating around that the cases were related to someone who got into The Range that night using a fake vaccination card).

Conroy said that she’s instructed her staff to check vaccination cards as people enter the bar, either through the physical card, the Excelsior pass app on smartphones or a picture of the vaccination card. She acknowledged that it would be tough to determine whether or not a card is legitimate or not.

“I would hope that folks would have a little bit more integrity than that,” Conroy said. “Just respect our rules for now, and maybe it will encourage some folks to go and get the shot. That’s the hope. We’re just going to keep doing the best we can.”

The Range, famous for its live music performances, was eager to get back to having full capacity crowds, which the spokesperson said was the primary reasoning for implementing the requirement. The policy hasn’t been an issue among workers either, as staffs at both The Range and Rhine House are all fully vaccinated and received their shots quickly after becoming eligible in New York.

Bars are not the only places instituting vaccination requirements—the Ithaca Times reported last week that a few other businesses around town, including Odyssey Bookstore, had made their locations vaxx-only. As pointed out in that article, other places are taking a different approach, like mask mandates or social distancing, but not going quite as far as a vaccination requirement. One example would be The Watershed, the State Street bar owned and operated by Ashley Cake. On the other hand, Conroy said she would consider re-implementing a mask mandate if fall and winter positive case numbers continue to ascend.

“Vaccinated folks can spread the virus too so requiring vaccination without also requiring masks and distancing doesn’t seem to keep anybody safer as far as I can tell,” Cake said.

Whatever the approach, the goal clearly remains the same: financial survival through staying open, with more data coming in every day that may better inform strategies to remain open going forward.

“We feel like we’ve done everything we can,” Conroy said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to stay open. I want everyone to be safe that works there and comes in. […] With more establishments being vaxx-only, we’ll be able to see more about where outbreaks are happening.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com