In-N-Out is wrong about vaccine mandates

Vaccine-related temper tantrums like the recent one from In-N-Out serve nobody well.

Why can’t this high-profile burger chain — and others in leisure and hospitality businesses — see that in order to put the pandemic in the past, efforts to throttle it should be embraced?

The latest business clap-back involves Bay Area regulations mandating restaurant and bar staff check indoor customers’ vaccination status.

After In-N-Out got slapped with health citations and dining-room closures from local regulators for ignoring those rules, it issued a loud critique of renewed efforts to maintain the state’s pandemic containment. That containment, I should add, is among the nation’s best.

“We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government,” said an In-N-Out statement attributed to its top in-house attorney, Arnie Wensinger. “It is unreasonable, invasive, and unsafe to force our restaurant associates to segregate customers into those who may be served and those who may not, whether based on the documentation they carry, or any other reason.”

FILE – In this Oct. 20, 2021, file photo, signs advising vaccination and face mask requirements and no indoor dining are displayed on the door of an In-N-Out restaurant in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The restaurant’s indoor dining was shut down this month by health authorities for not demanding proof of vaccination. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Let me politely call those comments “misguided,” while noting that restaurants already must follow numerous health laws designed to keep customers and employees safe.

Now, I fully understand the frustrations of consumer-facing businesses trying to return to some level of normal. Their profits are hinged on servicing people indoors, which is hard to do when the enemy is a highly contagious disease.

Ponder the wallop the “fun” businesses suffered. Statewide, jobs at leisure and hospitality industries are only at 82% of pre-pandemic levels vs. 96% for all other employers.

But the industry’s blame game — singling out government health efforts — ignores the reality that plenty of customers remain cautious about being in public, even fully vaccinated and masked. Worse, such screeds against virus containment efforts won’t build customer confidence among virus-phobic types.

Also, as service businesses struggle to stay staffed and pay premium wages to workers, disregarding public health policies won’t entice more folks to reply to the “help wanted” signs.

No lone voice

To be fair, In-N-Out’s challenge to authority is by no means unique.

Let’s ignore the mom-and-pop owners of small eateries and bars that gain a moment or two of notoriety by holding various “protests” against health mandates. These are mostly publicity stunts.

I remain annoyed at the ill-timed efforts by the theme park industry, which in the fall of 2020, tried to open gates earlier than the state’s timeline.

“It seems to me that the guidelines that are set up by the state of California are more stringent than any state across the country,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in November 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

Industry trade groups and its biggest player, Walt Disney Co., waged a media war against the governor’s assertion that congregating huge crowds was a bad idea in the days before vaccines were available.

“It seems to me that the guidelines that are set up by the state of California are more stringent than any state across the country,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in November 2020. “If you look at the history of Disney and what we’ve been able to do during the reopening — rather than arbitrary standards set up without regard to actual fact — and what we’ve been able to do as a company, I think you’d come to a different decision about reopening Disneyland.”

Imagine the bigger health disaster had the industry’s push early last fall — as virus cases and deaths were dropping — had resulted in looser restrictions.

The holiday season brought a horrific spike in the pandemic. Deaths spiked tenfold from Halloween to New Year’s. It’s hard to fathom how much worse it would have been with crowds in and around amusement parks potentially spreading the killer virus even further.

In-N-Out Burger signs fill the skyline on Tuesday, June 8, 2010, in Calif. The In-N-Out hamburger chain is sizzling mad after San Francisco shut down its indoor dining for refusing to check customers’ vaccination status. The company’s Fisherman’s Wharf location — its only one in San Francisco — was temporarily shut by the Department of Public Health on Oct. 14. (AP Photo/Adam Lau)

No thanks

I wish the industries instead had kept their energy focused on reinventing business in a pandemic.

We’ve seen some noteworthy ingenuity creating new twists to service that will be part of our “fun” culture well after the pandemic’s been knocked down. Bravo to touchless transactions, more outdoor dining options and reinvigorated takeout and delivery. The experience of visiting arenas, theaters, and theme parks is also more predictable, thanks to pandemic innovation.

Yet this protest from In-N-Out leaders feels like the company is biting the hand that feeds it as they act as proponents of prevention. It only fuels those who mistakenly dismiss the coronavirus risks. This group is far more dangerous to leisure and hospitality’s economic future than some overzealous bureaucrats.

COVID-19 thrashed California workers who provide entertainment, food and a good night’s sleep. These “fun” businesses — one-tenth of all California workers — account for one-third of nearly 1 million jobs still lost in the pandemic era.

But I’ll note the state has an enviable track record battling the virus on a per capita basis with the 11th fewest cases among the states and 15th lowest death rate.

Those health trends boosted the bottom lines at many businesses compared with what could have been a worst-case scenario. (Think Florida or Texas).

I wouldn’t expect a public expression of thanks, but silence would be golden.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at

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