By Alec Pruchnicki, MD
Twenty-eight years ago, when I moved down to Greenwich Village from Arthur Avenue in The Bronx, I wanted to find an Italian pastry shop like the ones in my old neighborhood. I found Rocco’s on Bleecker Street. For twenty-eight years I have been eating their cannoli and panettone. No more. The owners of Rocco’s have decided to politicize a simple public health measure by refusing to ask customers to show their vaccination cards and photo IDs for indoor seating, as recently mandated by the city. This puts their customers and the general public at risk for Covid infections, disease, and possible death. They deny it’s political. They say that they are simply not discriminating against unvaccinated individuals, and that this is a question of civil rights and freedom for those people. Nonsense.
First, what regulations do food service businesses normally obey? Everyone has seen signs in bathrooms saying employees must wash hands. Would any owner refuse to have an employee wash hands claiming a civil rights issue? Inspections make sure the basements aren’t crawling with mice, rats, and roaches. Is this an infringement on the owner’s right to run the business as he or she sees fit? Hot foods must be kept at a certain temperature, as must refrigerated foods, or they might be forcibly discarded and the owner fined. If a bar or restaurant owner refused to card suspected underage drinkers, and served them alcohol on the grounds that age discrimination against 18-year-olds (who can serve in the military, vote, drive a car, marry, etc.) is unfair and an infringement on freedom, wouldn’t the liquor license be pulled? There are probably countless other similar rules that exist, but what doesn’t exist is owners claiming that they don’t have to follow these rules in the name of freedom, non-discrimination, or whatever.
Second, there are other government-mandated rules that must be followed. Children must receive multiple vaccinations to attend public schools throughout the country, including in New York City. There is sometimes resistance to this, but usually it is accepted as a common-sense health measure. Those in the military receive many vaccinations. Even before Covid there were many regulations concerning tuberculosis screening and flu shots for health care workers that were universally accepted by those employed in the field. Visa applications for foreign travel often have vaccination requirements depending on the country being visited. Does anyone refuse those vaccines?
Third, this is not apolitical. I believe I saw Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa with the owner of Rocco’s at a press conference in Brooklyn but I can’t find a video of it on the Internet. Political resistance to numerous anti-Covid measures virtually all come from the political right, especially Republicans, throughout the entire United States. Vaccination, masking, quarantines, mandates, and other restrictions are fought with outright resistance, conspiracy theories, and promotion of ineffective treatments (like chloroquine, ivermectin, vitamin D, etc.) or second line medications (like monoclonal antibodies) with limited use. Anti-vaxxers have been around for a long time, but they have never had the success that this new right-wing movement is having.
This could actually hurt Rocco’s. In 2013 an employee of the New Hawaii Sea restaurant in The Bronx came down with Hepatitis A, which then infected four customers. The Department of Health closed the restaurant, hundreds of customers received gamma globulin injections, the restaurant was sued, and (I think) went out of business. This started with only one person. (I don’t believe anyone died from the outbreak.) If this happened at Rocco’s, starting with just one infected person, whether a customer or an asymptomatic staffer, it could lead to severe illness or death in numerous people. (Hepatitis A does not kill 600,000 people in a year and a half, but Covid did.)
How many people with measles or chicken pox have you met recently? Ever meet anyone with polio or smallpox? Thank vaccines, not the anti-vaxxers who are either apolitical or from the conservative right wing.
Since the mandate for vaccine carding was instated, I’ve eaten in two restaurants and three other pastry shops, all below 14th Street, where all customers were carded. There were no big speeches about civil rights, freedoms, or government tyranny. They just did it. It would be easy for Rocco’s if they dropped the attitude and the false outrage they are exhibiting. I’d love to get back to their cannoli and panettone.
I’ve always tried to patronize small businesses, especially if family-run. But, as a physician, I’m obligated to do everything I can to prevent the spread of a preventable deadly disease. But you don’t have to be a doctor to realize that you shouldn’t patronize a business that holds the health of its customers and the general public in contempt.