Sarah Dyes, a staff member at The Ship, checks COVID-19 vaccination cards at the door. The policy went into effect Aug. 2. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Editor’s note: This post will be updated as more businesses announce proof of vaccination requirements. This post was last updated Aug. 25.

From live music venues to local bars, Kansas City-area businesses are now requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. 

With COVID-19 cases rising in the Kansas City metro, driven by the delta variant, local businesses are trying new tactics to try to slow down the spread of the virus, protect staff and customers and potentially incentivize the unvaccinated to get their shots.

So far, at least 11 businesses in Kansas City are asking for proof of vaccination. Two of those will accept a negative COVID-19 test if someone is unvaccinated. Hamburger Mary’s KC and Woody’s KC, two LGBTQ-friendly bars, were the first to publicly announce the policy in early August. 

The Ship, a bar and live music venue in the West Bottoms, instituted a proof-of-vaccination policy Aug. 2, requiring patrons who visit after 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday to show they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

“As the delta variant started to gain steam, a lot of us kind of started getting a little concerned about it,” said Lotta Williams, general manager of The Ship. “A lot of it was partially with the mask mandate coming back and our concerns over the rising resistance to people complying with that was part of what motivated us.”

More recently, entertainment company AEG Presents announced that proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will be required of all ticket holders and staff for any event at its nationwide venues — including the 3,200-seat Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland in downtown Kansas City. The policy begins no later than Oct. 1. 

These business-initiated policies come after Kansas City, Missouri, reinstated its mask mandate in early August. It’s currently set to expire Sept. 23.

Kansas City Health Department data shows COVID-19 cases have increased rapidly this summer, jumping from 226 weekly cases the first week of July to 1,500 cases the first week of August. 

Kansas City had a 35.6% rate of positive cases the week of Aug. 14  — the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic. 

Under the current mask order, businesses or gatherings don’t need to enforce the mask mandate if they can determine that everyone inside their venue is fully vaccinated.

It is not a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, for private businesses to require proof of vaccination from customers and employees. HIPAA’s Privacy Rule protects a person’s individually identifiable health information and only applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses and any health care provider. 

Local live music venues paving the way with vaccination requirements

The local businesses requiring proof of vaccination offer live performances, which factored heavily into their decisions.

Williams at The Ship said the team was already considering this policy before Kansas City reissued a mask mandate. She said the business feels like it has a responsibility to the community.

“It’s not even really an exclusionary thing, as much as it is, this is how we have to move forward for our demographic,” she said.

In April, The Ship returned to hosting live performances on weekend nights, a club staple that had been put on hold in the pandemic. Williams said The Ship could not have survived a second shutdown if live performances ended.

“We were basically just trying to figure out a way to make everybody comfortable and to be able to figure out a way to get through this without having to shut it down again,” Williams said. “We just weren’t in a position to be able to say, ‘OK, no more live music. No more anything.’”

Williams helps check vaccine cards at the door — she said she didn’t want to hand off the responsibility to staff. So far, she said the main challenge is turning away customers who say they’ve been vaccinated but can’t show proof.

The new policy also netted an unexpected surprise. 

“We’ve managed to get a lot of people that have never been here before, who came specifically because they supported our policy,” Williams said. 

Patrons dine at The Ship’s original bar on a Thursday evening. Before entering, they had to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

She has found it’s easier to check vaccine cards at the door than to enforce masking. With the new policy, the strain on staff to act as “mask police” is eased. 

“The fact that they don’t have to go out and control that really does take a lot of pressure off of the staff,” Williams said.

Tyra Prosser, a hostess at The Ship, said she feels safer with the proof-of-vaccination policy, especially with family members working in the medical field. 

“It’s your right not to get a vaccine,” Prosser said. “It’s also a business’ right to not let you in, regardless (of) if you’re drunk or don’t have a vaccine.”

The Kansas City businesses on the fence about proof of vaccination

Some local businesses are on the fence about instituting a proof-of-vaccination policy. 

Keely Edgington, owner of Julep and Canary, two cocktail bars in midtown Kansas City, said staff at both businesses have thought about creating the policy. 

But there’s a concern for the safety of employees should they have to enforce another pandemic-era rule. 

“They’ve already been through enough,” Edgington said. “Servers have been through more than they should ever have to.”

Howard Hanna, chef and owner of Ça Va in Westport, said managers have discussed a proof-of-vaccination policy and have not decided to implement one so far. There’s concern that requiring proof would be a “get-out-of-COVID-free” card, Hanna said, even though vaccinated people can still catch and transmit COVID-19 to others.

“I was really worried that just because people are vaccinated, they can still come in, still spread it, catch it and then go back to their regular lives,” Hana said. “And spread it more to people who are more vulnerable and could have way worse impacts.”

Staff will continue to discuss a proof-of-vaccination policy as the pandemic continues.

“I think everyone’s trying their best and (have) good intentions trying to figure out the best path forward,” Hanna said.

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