Will Restaurants Screen Guests for Vaccination?

The TSA-screening app CLEAR is ramping up its Health Pass, a service that tracks users’ vaccination records and COVID test results. Here's what that could mean for the hospitality industry.

CLEAR Health Pass
Photo: Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images

Nossa is a new southern Brazilian restaurant in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was conceived and launched entirely during the pandemic, opening in January with plans of indoor-outdoor full service and an indoor bar. For now, Nossa operates with limited outdoor table service, per city regulations.

Seated guests access a menu via QR code and order with a server. Initially, they ordered at the counter, general manager Xandre Borghetti said. It only took three days to realize that this caused far too much congregating. People ordering, people grabbing their meals, and delivery drivers picking up to-go orders were all clustered in one small space.

The new setup is working so far, Borghetti says. Parties are seated at least ten feet apart, and safety regulations are posted clearly on each table: food arrives when it's ready, guests wear a mask when servers approach, no groups larger than six, everyone must be from the same household, please bus your tables.

It's a long list of rules, but fairly standard in the time of Covid, when safety comes first and everything else comes after. Regulations and standards are wildly different across the country, and can change quickly. Given all these logistical hurdles, would a third-party health-screening tool for guests and staff help everyone feel more at ease?

The answer: maybe? It's complicated.

Earlier this month, CLEAR announced $100 million in funding to build out its Health Pass, a mobile app that ties a person's identity to health information including Covid test results and vaccination records. Danny Meyer's Enlightened Hospitality Investments fund participated in the round. CLEAR is known for its airport kiosks, offering expedited TSA screening for an annual membership fee of $180. With a list of investors that includes Meyer and the investment arms of the NFL and the Partnership Fund for New York City, it's easy to guess where this technology might lead: screening at restaurants, bars, stadium events, and, presumably anywhere there's a crowd.

CLEAR's Health Pass actually launched last summer. According to its website, members of the public can enroll and integrate Covid test results, vaccine validation, and other health information. Anyone 18 years or older with a U.S. ID is eligible to use the Health Pass for free, but must first register for a CLEAR account and download a mobile app. (No, you can't use your free account at the airport.) Current partners include Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, New York's 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, home of the Pistons and Red Wings.

Would a third-party health-screening tool for guests and staff help everyone feel more at ease? The answer: maybe? It's complicated.

"We implemented Clear as an internal tool to streamline and digitize health checks of staff members," a representative for Union Square Hospitality Group said over email. "By converting what started as a manual process (managers were the ones in charge of it before) to a digital technology-driven process, we were able to make operational improvements while protecting team members' privacy of their health data. We're still using the technology at all of our operating restaurants." Before a shift, employees take a health survey in the app. When employees arrive, their temperature is taken via CLEAR kiosk or thermometer.

Plenty of institutions from hospitals to schools are screening people for entry already, taking temperatures or asking for health information. The concept of screening before entry isn't problematic in itself, said Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory University's Center for Ethics. He said that patrons must be informed of the limits and risks of any third-party technology. In this case, that means even when using a tool like CLEAR to enter a public space, people shouldn't assume they are 100 percent protected against infection. "That onus is not on the restaurants, that onus is on CLEAR," he said.

"Given a really well-informed patron, an understanding of risk, and really good screening of the restaurant personnel as well—it's not just the patrons who can have virus—then I think that this, especially as we move into more vaccination, is a very reasonable way to try to both allow society to begin to open back up while keeping people as safe as possible," he said.

The ideal, Wolpe said, would be a standardized government-issued version of the Health Pass. "But that's not going to happen. At least there's no intention for that to happen that I've heard of coming from the government. In the United States, where the government fears to tread, private industries step in."

Borghetti says he's not sure he'd use technology like CLEAR's at Nossa; his first priority is helping his staff get vaccinated. He's also not sure how comfortable he'd be asking patrons to prove they're vaccinated. It might feel invasive and unethical to ask for health information, and Borghetti agreed that national regulation could make it easier for restaurant employees.

"You ask someone for ID to prove whether they're 21 or not," Borghetti said. "If they're not, you can say, 'You can't come in, it's the law.' So does this push the government to have some sort of federal mandate? It does feel weirder that it's a private company doing this—but then again it's your own private business and you can do what you want, right?"

According to a press release, "CLEAR's data security framework meets the highest standards for performance and for protecting sensitive information. CLEAR's users are always in control of their data and CLEAR does not sell user information."

Technology like CLEAR's Health Pass makes it easy for patrons to share their status with restaurants, or anyone else who asks. Joel Montaniel is co-founder and CEO of Sevenrooms, a restaurant technology platform that offers features like reservations and customer-relationship management. Its clients include restaurants, hotel food and beverage, nightlife, and entertainment venues,. Montaniel considers technology like CLEAR's health pass to be a positive development. "It helps us get back to more certainty and stability," he said. "At the center of everything is health, and whether or not someone that you're surrounded by might potentially have the virus."

Technologically speaking, a platform like SevenRooms could conceivably integrate with a system like CLEAR. "We have the ability to integrate with identity systems. In hotels, we can integrate with the loyalty program, we can integrate with the hotel management system," Montaniel said. So, CLEAR being another identity system, if the operator or CLEAR wanted us to integrate with them, and of course, all data privacy was honored, we could connect to it."

Imagine: Guests booking dinner reservations can verify they've passed a health screening; large resorts could designate a wing of their hotel for a big group of prescreened conference guests. "For the people that want to [travel] and the ones that have the clearance, why not make it easier for them to show that?" Montaniel said.

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