Over the weekend, a handful of Philly restaurants joined a growing movement in the restaurant industry across America in instituting policies that require diners to provide proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 before eating indoors. The list in Philly currently includes Martha, Musi BYOB, Irwin’s Upstairs, Le Virtù, Sally, and Cornerstone Bistro in Wayne, and as of August 4, beloved South Philly Thai restaurant Kalaya Thai Kitchen will add its name to the list, albeit with slightly more flexible guidelines. “It’s an honor policy,” chef and owner Nok Suntaranon tells Eater.
Kalaya’s policies will loosely differ from the number of restaurants requiring proof of vaccination, where diners are being asked to present a physical card, photograph, or vaccine passport to eat indoors. At Kalaya, Suntaranon tells Eater that they will now be “requesting politely” that diners who are unvaccinated make the right choice in where to eat when on the restaurant premises. When diners make a reservation or when they arrive at Kalaya on South 9th Street, Suntaranon asks that unvaccinated people take the initiative to request outdoor seating instead of indoors.
Suntaranon says that she is stopping short of formally requesting proof of vaccination because she believes it’s the city government’s job to issue a mandate — an act which would relieve the pressure restaurants are feeling to make the difficult decision themselves, especially with the real threat of customer backlash. “The middle ground and the most practical way to approach this will to have it come from people who have power, who issue the guidelines,” Suntaranon says. “If you can tell us to close our dining room overnight, you can issue whatever rule or regulation that could help prevent us from closing our dining rooms again.”
While Kalaya will be operating under a “trust policy” around vaccinations until further notice, a little over a week ago, staff and diners at Kalaya began wearing masks indoors again, which is one way Suntaranon is hoping to keep her employees safe. All of Kalaya’s staff members are currently vaccinated, but with concerns that they could still get sick from breakthrough cases of the COVID-19 delta variant, “this is how I can protect my staff,” Suntaranon says. “When my staff comes to talk to you, you put your mask on.” Guests will be asked to wear a mask in the restaurant with the only exception of when they are eating or drinking.
The past 17 months have been a “total disappointment” from city leadership, Suntaranon says, and that has resulted in restaurants being confronted by angry customers over independently instituted policies. “We cannot do it alone. The city needs to help us,” she says. “They hung us dry, with no help, no clear guidelines, nothing. This is the time that they can prove that they care. Then we can comply.”