Hospitality and tourism workers have learnt to think of themselves as frontline workers over the course of the pandemic – dealing with the mask-averse and QR-code resistant, for example – but the vaccine rollout has made the battle lines even more fraught.
On one side are service staff and business owners who believe vaccines offer a safe path to the certainty they crave. On the other are those opposed to COVID-19 vaccination in general or the "segregation" enforced by vaccine passports.
While restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne remain closed during lockdown, the site of conflict is social media. But when businesses reopen, some operators are fearful their front-of-house staff will be subject to in-person abuse.
Last weekend a battleground erupted on Sydney restaurant Aria's Instagram account when a post announced bookings would open to fully vaccinated diners from Sydney's projected opening day of October 18.
The post was peppered with more than 10,000 comments, some joyful at the prospect of dining at Matt Moran's flagship fine-diner again, but many more expressing their horror at the "discrimination" of excluding the unvaccinated.
In a typical comment, one Instagram user wrote "Will you be requiring proof of the flu vaccination as well? Any other transmissible illnesses? How about anyone on the paedophile register? Segregation is not the answer and it is a disgrace."
Many made comparisons to Nazism and racial discrimination. "Did you dust off the 'whites only' sign to make it more modern?" another user asked.
"Aria was crucified," says Jorge Farah, managing director of Esca Group, which owns Sydney restaurants including Cuckoo Callay, Nour and Henrietta.
"I was really taken aback by it. No restaurant has ever thought they'd be policing this level of activity. We agree with their position but we think it's better to stay quiet until more firm direction is given from the government."
Farah would welcome public health orders that make it clear restaurants are following rules rather than mandating their own policies.
"It's wrong for a business owner to have to manage something like that," he says. "We will be more confident knowing the government has our back and we just regurgitate the rules. Restaurants have always followed conditions. This will just be another layer."
Even so, Farah expects his staff will feel some heat. "It's a concern," he says. "It may be harder for our hosts and managers to deal with the door. We may get pushback and see a decline in sales but people will get used to it."
It's not just restaurants waiting for clarity. Michelle Bishop owns Bangalay Luxury Villas on the NSW South Coast. She is concerned about additional obligations any health orders may impose on her accommodation and food business.
"We have a very open venue where people walk in off the beach to get a takeaway coffee," she says. "Will they need to have a vaccine passport for that? It's hard without a public health order but we are concerned we'll have to impose changes to our business that cost us money."
Hash Tayeh owns 11 Burgertory stores in Melbourne. He doesn't plan to exclude unvaccinated diners unless the government requires it.
"I am vaccinated but I don't want to take sides," he says. "We just want to serve our customers and welcome people through the doors. Pro-vax and anti-vax is an ugly fight that is causing division – do you really want to discuss politics with your customers?"
Tayeh would accede to any government mandate. "We will abide by the law," he says, though he predicts any laws will still have areas of contention for his quick-service restaurants.
"People can order online, pay online then walk in to grab the food," he says. "What if they arrive and they're not vaccinated? Do we say they can't have their food? We don't want to make enemies of the public."
Burgertory would train its workforce to defuse any flashpoints. "You can't expect a 16-year-old to deal with it without support," says Tayeh. "We do a lot of coaching and scripting. We would teach our staff how to refuse service in a way that doesn't offend the other side."
That's exactly the right approach, according to psychologist Rhonda Andrews, founder of Barrington Centre, which has developed a mental wellbeing framework for hospitality businesses.
"Hospitality staff do not go to work to be abused," she says. "It's important they are trained not to engage in any arguments with customers related to views on vaccinations. It's lose-lose.
"They need to keep a calm manner and calm voice and also have a script prepared by the employer that states that the requirements come from the government, they are not specific to that venue."
Andrews also recommends cheerful and explanatory signage, senior staff within easy reach and online reservations that require agreement to conditions to make a booking.
Hardware Societe in Katherine Place, photographed pre-COVID. Photo: Eddie Jim
Di Keser owns Hardware Societe cafes in Melbourne and also Paris, where dine-in customers must show a vaccine passport.
"You come to the door, we scan your passport, you get a tick," she says. "It's QR based and it's not difficult. There's been no pushback at all."
Keser had the experience of being trolled on social media when she did a pro-vaccination post. "I got bombarded with horrible vitriolic content so I turned comments off," she says. "I don't have any tolerance for it. I want to live like we used to. This is our only path out."
She is similarly hardline if customers kick up a fuss at the cafes. "My staff can call the police, it's as simple as that," she says. "We've always had a policy that if customers are hostile or rude they can leave."
Analysis and anecdotal evidence suggests that online barrages from anti-vaxxers may not be from a business's customers in the first place.
Eloise Glenane owns South Melbourne's Montague Hotel, which was piled on when it posted on Instagram in support of vaccination.
"People came on and were being horrific but I realised I don't know them from a bar of soap," she says. "They say 'I'm never coming back' but they never came in the first place. I have no concern about alienating any of our actual customers."
Montague Hotel co-owners, siblings Eloise and Patrick Glenane, attracted negative attention for supporting vaccinations. Photo: Eamon Gallagher
A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram says, "There is no place for bullying or harassment of any kind on Instagram and we remove it whenever we find it...We also prohibit content that advocates or promotes that others do not get the COVID-19 vaccine."
The company also notes that negative comments often come from people "who simply pile on in the moment".
Hundreds of the comments expressing anti-vax sentiments on Aria's Instagram post are from private, overseas or new accounts with few followers, likely created with the sole purpose of trolling. Many claims of discrimination and "segregation" were also posted by self-promoted "wellness" advocates.
Instagram points to new protective tools such as "Limits" which automatically hides comments from users who don't follow, or only recently followed, the account.
Fake reviews are another scourge, with Aria receiving a one-star write-up on Tripadvisor following its bookings stance. Tripadvisor removed the review after being alerted to it, noting that its policies have been updated for COVID-19.
"We will remove any content that encourages people to ignore government guidelines or restrictions...or promotes dubious medical advice or misinformation," said a spokesperson for the user-generated review platform.
Ladro Tap was subjected to abusive comments via Google. Photo: Supplied
Ladro pizza restaurant in Melbourne spoke in favour of vaccination and was then targeted on Google with one-star reviews and offensive comments on Friday. One user wrote, "disgusting establishment that wishes death on people."
Ladro owner Ingrid Langtry believes a recent flurry of takedowns originated in Sydney from people who have never visited her restaurant.
"Some of the vitriolic abuse we have been subjected to is so offensively untrue, it's disturbing," she says. "Taking a pro-vaxxer stance and trusting science isn't marginal, it's the view of the vast majority."
Di Keser says "In the end, these keyboard warriors are out there to cause trouble and they are the least of your worries in the real world. It's much more important to me that our loyal customers know that we are super serious about COVID measures like vaccination."