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If you want to eat at this popular SLC restaurant, you’d better have your ID and proof of vaccination — and that’s fine, Robert Gehrke says

Bayou owner is getting heat from anti-vaxxers, but he’s OK with them eating elsewhere.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It didn’t really come as a surprise. At dinner the other night for my son’s birthday, a couple came into the restaurant, she was wearing a mask and he wasn’t.

The hostess politely asked him if he needed a mask and he showed it to her in his hand and she, again, politely told him he would need to put it on to be seated. He scowled and begrudgingly put it on so they could walk the 20 steps to their table for their meal.

There’s always going to be someone — usually a guy (be better, gentlemen) — but these incidents seem to be handled without major tantrums.

Then there are the calls, bordering on full-blown conniptions targeted at Mark Alston, owner of the popular Salt Lake City restaurant The Bayou — one of my favorite restaurants with a great jambalaya.

For Alston, simply requiring masks didn’t cut it — and he’s got a point. How much sense does it make for patrons to wear a mask to the table, then take it off for the next hour while they eat and drink and talk, then put it back on to leave?

“It’s theater,” he said. “Having everyone have their vaccine isn’t theater.”

So when The Bayou reopens Wednesday, it will be perhaps the only business in the state that will require patrons to show a proof-of-vaccination and be two weeks out from their final shot in order to dine in the establishment.

That way, Alston said, he can comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, allowing fully vaccinated people to not wear masks and distance. (He said reasonable accommodations will be made for people with disabilities that prevent them from getting vaccinated).

Word of The Bayou’s new policy spread quickly on social media, and the backlash from right-wing, anti-vax groups was severe.

“Those guys freaked out and were just literally outraged and insane,” Alston told me. “They suggested all sorts of violent things, wishing death on us and everyone we know, wishing us to fail miserably.”

One caller accused Alston of running a “pedophile beer cult” — making him the new Comet Ping-Pong, the Washington, D.C., pizza parlor where QAnon conspiracists believed Hillary Clinton and Democrats ran a child sex trafficking ring in the basement — then went off on a tangent about how soy was turning people gay.

Since that first furious wave, though, the pendulum has swung back, Alston said. In the last few days the calls have been overwhelmingly supportive, with people who haven’t felt comfortable dining indoors thanking him for an opportunity to eat and drink in the safest possible setting.

So many people have called, in fact, that Alston said he has had to tell people not to come on the first few nights they’re open — there simply won’t be room for everyone.

Employees have returned explicitly because of the policy, he said, and some that left pre-pandemic have come back to work, as well.

Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, said she doesn’t know of another establishment in the valley taking The Bayou’s approach. Most are still requiring masks for employees and patrons, although even that can vary depending on where they are located and the clientele.

She said one restaurant owner in the south end of the valley told her that roughly four out of five patrons show up without masks. Employees who are fully vaccinated aren’t required to wear masks, either. The response from the customers, she said, has been that they thank the owner for not requiring the wait staff to mask up.

There is even a crowd-sourced Website where people can report which businesses do or don’t require patrons to wear masks.

Alston said he wouldn’t necessarily recommend other businesses follow his lead.

“I’ve never subscribed to doing things the way everyone else is doing it,” he said, “and I’m not going to judge how [other restaurants] doing it, either.”

But Alston said dealing with the flood of anger and hate — much of which, he believes, is from people who have never been to The Bayou and never would go — has been thoroughly and utterly exhausting.

It’s also a little ironic, in the sense that it’s coming from the same segment of the population that was supposedly so stridently pro-business.

When The Bayou’s policy made it to the Utah Business Revival Facebook page, some hoped they would go out of business, called it socialism, claimed it was pro-vaccine coercion and even compared The Bayou’s treatment of anti-vaxxers to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews.

No, really.

Other commenters in the group, to their credit, grasped the point: They claimed they wanted businesses to be free to respond to the pandemic however they wanted. That’s precisely what The Bayou is doing, and they are well within their rights to do it.

If the anti-vaxxers don’t like it? In that case, Alston said, he would encourage them to take their business elsewhere.

And I’m fine with that. More jambalaya for me.

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