Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Months after County Executive Marc Elrich said local leaders were floating the idea of a regional vaccine passport for Montgomery County and the greater Washington, D.C., region, it appears that proposal will not likely happen, at least in the immediate future.

But in a news briefing with reporters this week, Elrich said he would support another idea to try and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus: proof of vaccination for indoor dining.

Indoor dining is one place where masks are not continuously worn, and where the virus can potentially spread, the county executive said. 

“The Board of Health is perfectly free to do that,” he said about an vaccination requirement for indoor dining. “And I would be thrilled if they did it.”

Previously, Elrich had suggested a vaccine passport between Montgomery County and neighboring jurisdictions. A regional governing body that could draft and pass such a regulation is the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG, or COG).

Steve Kania, a spokesman for the Council of Governments, wrote in email that at this point, “the administrative officials who discussed this topic in August have not taken it up again… there’s still no regional proposal being advanced through COG.”

County Council President Gabe Albornoz, who also chairs the Board of Health, said in an interview Thursday that he wasn’t opposed to Elrich’s suggestion for a vaccine mandate for indoor dining.

Larger jurisdictions around the country have enacted versions of a mandate, including Philadelphia, New York City and San Francisco

Given the fluid movement of people throughout the Washington, D.C., region, Albornoz said it is probably worth trying to coordinate with other jurisdictions, like with the vaccine passport.

“I certainly understand the concept, but I think for it to be effective, there would have to be a regional approach to carrying out something like that … given the transient nature of our community, that is something to be considered, for that to have any sort of weight,” Albornoz said. 

More than a dozen businesses countywide require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test for entry, including about a handful of bars and restaurants.

A few restaurant owners in Bethesda, however, said enforcing an indoor vaccine mandate would be difficult, given the political nature of the issue.

Laura Houlihan, owner of Barrel & Crow, said it is difficult to ask customers whether they have been fully vaccinated, and some might have a legitimate medical or religious reason not to get it. She said she is vaccinated but has an employee who is going through chemotherapy, and thus could not.

She added there’s also the issue of breakthrough cases, and whether having a mandatory vaccination policy would actually improve business, or hurt it. It’s not a clear question to answer, Houlihan added. 

A contractor who works for her “has had the booster and both vaccines and still got [it] … there’s so much that we don’t know about this .. I don’t know if people would come in and be at more ease if they knew that a restaurant was 100% vaccinated,” Houlihan said.

Alan Pohoryles, owner of Tommy Joe’s Bar and Grille, also said it would be difficult to enforce such a policy. Pohoryles is fully vaccinated and personally believes that people, if they are able, should get the vaccine.

Pohoryles said that Tommy Joe’s initially had a vaccine requirement for customers, but removed it when the county reinstated its mask mandate in November, not long after the county had lifted its mandate.

It’s difficult to enforce a vaccine mandate, especially during busier times, he said.

“Do you know how difficult it is when you have 100 people waiting to get into your restaurant, to check if they’re vaccinated? It’s nearly impossible,” Pohoryles said.

The rise of coronavirus cases and news of the omicron variant has already caused several cancellations of reservations at his restaurant, Pohoryles said. 

“For every three parties we book, two parties cancel because of COVID,” he said.

There’s also another dynamic, Pohoryles said: How would restaurants fare under such a policy decision, versus bars that stay open late that also serve food? It’s difficult to say, he added.

“The personal side [of me] says, ‘Yeah that’s a great idea,’” Pohoryles said. “The business owner side [of me] says, ‘I’m scared of the business I’m going to lose, especially with how bad things got for restaurants during the [early] pandemic.”

Albornoz emphasized that before any Board of Health proposal is considered, there would need to be input from businesses and others.

“For it to be effective, I think we would have cross regional cooperation, and we would want input from our stakeholders, he said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com