FITCHBURG, Wis. (AP) — COVID-19 hit close to home for the owners of Quivey’s Grove, which is why they’re requesting that only vaccinated customers eat there — likely the first restaurant in Dane County to do so.
Early in the pandemic, John Fleck, 54, who had been working at the popular Fitchburg restaurant, died from COVID-19.
“We’ve felt this very, very personally,” said Deirdre Garton, who owns Quivey’s Grove with Craig Kuenning.
Fleck, a married father of two teenagers, was an assistant manager at Quivey’s in the 1990s, and founded its longstanding beer festival, but left to work at Lands’ End.
He had been back, working Friday nights as a bartender at Quivey’s Stable Grill, where the fish fry draws huge crowds.
It’s hard to know if Fleck — who died on April 4, 2020 — got COVID-19 at the restaurant because he only worked there one night a week, Garton said, but she called his loss “very, very tragic and emotional for everybody.”
Fleck’s wife, Pam, said last year that on March 17, 2020, the day most restaurants in Dane County were forced to close due to the pandemic, her husband woke up with a fever.
With COVID-19 just starting to pick up in Wisconsin, he was worried, Pam Fleck said, mostly about giving his illness to her because her immune system is compromised from rheumatoid arthritis. He had no underlying health conditions.
The measure is a request rather than a requirement, and Garton said it’s still a “work in progress.”
The idea is to keep Quivey’s staff, who are all vaccinated, as safe as possible, especially with new COVID-19 variants, she said.
The restaurant, which marked its 40th anniversary last year, communicated its vaccine request in a Nov. 14 email to customers, and posted signs with the same appeal on the doors of both the Stable Grill and the Stone House, an Italianate fieldstone mansion popular for special occasions, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Nobody at the restaurant checks vaccine cards. It’s handled on the honor system, Garton said.
“We’re trying to figure out the logistics of how to be able to do that in an efficient way,” she said about checking vaccine status.
Garton and Kuenning said finding new employees is challenging, and they can’t spare a staff member to do the checking.
“We are unable to find employees to guard the gate,” Kuenning said. “The choice to be vaccinated is certainly up to every individual, but we feel we have the right to ask people to be vaccinated to come into our buildings.”
Kuenning said Quivey’s banned smoking indoors in 1989, a year before it became state law, “for the same reasons.” He said the restaurant lost some bar business, but gained diners.
Customer reaction to the vaccination request has been about 75% positive, the owners said. Garton said most customers “are just terrific, and say, ‘Thank you so much for trying to keep it a safe place.’”
In Dane County, 87.2% of residents 12 and older have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 83.7% have completed the series, according to data from the city-county health department.
The most recent figures, gathered last week, show that 33% of Dane County residents who completed the initial vaccine series have received a booster or third dose, and 68% of residents 65 and older who completed the initial series have received a booster.
Kuenning said the move hasn’t affected business dramatically in the two weeks it has been in effect.
“As the word gets out, I’m sure we’re going to find that some people who are not vaccinated will choose not to come in,” he said. “But our hope is that people who are vaccinated will choose Quivey’s perhaps feeling safer.”
Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said she was unaware of Quivey’s vaccine policy and knows of no other restaurants in Dane County that are making a similar request.
“There are pockets of the country, typically large urban cities, that are requiring customers to be fully vaccinated to dine at restaurants, so this trend is not unknown,” she said.
Hillmer said that areas with vaccine mandates are put in a difficult enforcement position “and are seeing harm to their business from customers who refuse to either comply or disclose their vaccine status.”
Such measures put restaurant employees in a difficult position and create additional hardships for small businesses already struggling to recover from the pandemic, she said.
Hillmer said it’s hard to know if it’s a good business move, but said she supports the ability of business owners to make decisions based on the needs of their employees and customers.
“This way, customers can pick and choose what fits their comfort level, employees can do the same, and there is a recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach does not meet the needs of individual businesses,” she said.
Kuenning said he wishes there was a government mandate to protect everyone who enters a restaurant, but since there isn’t, “we thought we might try to protect our employees, our guests, and our business as best we could.”
Regardless of what a restaurant does, Hillmer said, many customers already feel safe because they’re vaccinated. Nonetheless, some vaccinated people will feel more safe and gravitate to a restaurant with this policy, she said.
“Some will think it is unnecessary because they are vaccinated and will choose to go because they want to eat there,” she said, “and some will balk at disclosing or being told they must have a vaccine and will likely choose to eat elsewhere.”
Caitlin Suemnicht, chief executive officer at Food Fight Restaurant Group, which operates 18 restaurants in the Madison area, said Food Fight doesn’t ask that customers be vaccinated.
“If there was a city- or countywide ordinance, that would be one thing,” she said, “but since the decision is up to the business, we will not be requesting that customers show proof of vaccination.”
The company also doesn’t require that its employees be vaccinated. Suemnicht said during a period over the summer when the public health masking order wasn’t in place, the company relaxed its mask policy and allowed employees who showed proof of vaccination to go without masks.
“Because of this, we know we have a very high employee vaccination rate and do not plan on requiring employee vaccination at this time,” she said.
In late October, Genna’s Cocktail Lounge, which doesn’t serve food, became the first bar in Dane County to require proof of vaccination. Owner Kristi Genna said the tavern has a door person checking vaccination status on weekends with bartenders checking during the week.
“Most people already have (their vaccine cards) out when they come in,” Genna said.
Caleb Percevecz, an assistant manager at Quivey’s, said employees would be more likely to face backlash if someone were checking for proof of vaccination, but so far, he said, the only opposition they’ve encountered has been through email.
He said that over many months of takeout fish fries, the same usual customers placed orders, but since the restaurant put out the email about its vaccine request, it has been seeing a 50-60% increase in new takeout customers.
The same is true of reservations for indoor dining, Percevecz said. “So, I think it’s trending up. It seems to be working. Our clientele seem to be really appreciative and hopefully they’re going to continue to come out and be supportive.”