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'This isn't a joke': Spokane bar Nyne requires vaccination status for entry

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 hitting Spokane County hard, the bar is taking the community's safety into its own hands.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane businesses have had to adjust to changing COVID-19 guidelines since March of 2020. As the Delta variant is spreading quickly across the United States, and with updated guidelines from the CDC and Gov. Jay Inslee, nYne Bar and Bistro is requiring vaccination status to enter.  

July-O-Ween is an iconic downtown Spokane staple that nYne puts on almost every year. It didn’t get to happen in 2020 due to the pandemic, so this year the crew at the bar decided to go all out. 

"It was an opportunity for us to have that like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what we do,’" bartender Esteban Herevia said.

After opening up the dance floor at the end of June, Herevia and the nYne team set some ground rules for customers. 

They are one of the only bars in the area to require vaccination upon entry. If a guest is vaccinated, they don't have to wear a mask and they get to dance. Vaccinated guests get a wristband. If the guest isn't vaccinated, they still get to come in, but they must sit at a table and wear the mask the whole time. 

"We've gotten a lot of pushback," he added. " I think some folks believe that we are discriminating against them, that's the language that they use."

People reference a violation of their HIPAA protections, but most businesses would not violate HIPAA by asking about a customer’s vaccination status.

“People often feel like HIPAA protects them from being asked about their medical information, or prohibits other people from asking about their medical information,” Kayte Spector-Bagdady, a lawyer and bioethicist who is also the associate director at the University of Michigan’s Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, said. “Neither is true. HIPAA prohibits health professionals, such as your doctor, from sharing your identified health information without your permission in most circumstances. People can always ask about your health information, and you can almost always decline to answer. But not answering health questions might come at a cost – such as not being able to enter your workplace or board a plane.”

RELATED: No, most businesses won’t violate HIPAA by asking customers if they’ve been vaccinated

Businesses are also allowed to require customers who are unvaccinated to wear a mask, even if there are no mandates. 

“In effect, there’s a quid pro quo—if they want to come into the business, they must adhere to the business’s requirements to keep everyone there safe—and someone who is not vaccinated will pose fewer risks to the other people if they then instead wear a mask,“ Margaret Foster Riley, a health law expert at the University of Virginia School of Law, said.

RELATED: Yes, businesses can require unvaccinated customers to wear masks even if there are no mandates

"We understand that now, infection used to happen in 12 seconds," Herevia said, referencing a study done by researchers at the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention in China. "Now it happens in one second." 

After July-O-Ween was canceled last year, the opportunity for a completely normal holiday isn't a reality for them this year, either.

"Even before COVID, our goal has been to be a safe place for anybody, no matter who they are, where they come from, their identity, right?" he said. "That understanding of safety now translates into 'how do we create the most safe environment possible.' It's touched all of us in different ways."

Herevia caught COVID in November of 2020 and was hospitalized as his kidneys started to fail. His kidneys suffered again and he was re-hospitalized in January, so he is especially connected to this fight. 

"I'm grateful to be alive, we're all grateful to be alive and healthy," he said. "So when we say we're doing our best to make sure that this is safe, this isn't a joke. We're not just making this up."

While in the hospital, his body was basically shutting down and he was on oxygen, he added. 

He is now a COVID long-hauler, meaning he may see symptoms for the rest of his life. The condition affects an uncertain number of survivors in a baffling variety of ways. Fatigue, shortness of breath, insomnia, trouble thinking clearly and depression are among the many reported symptoms. Organ damage, including lung scarring and heart inflammation, has also been seen. Pinpointing whether these symptoms are directly linked to the virus or perhaps to some preexisting condition is among scientists’ tasks.

"Never again, don't want to do that again," he laughed. "I don't wish that on anybody."

The event is still going to be awesome, just with a few added safety precautions, he added.

"It's easy for us to make the changes because we are committed to it," he said. "So we're going to do everything in our power or in our control within this space to make the changes that are necessary.

"So masks, that's an easy ask for folks. It's a hard one to adjust back to. We get it, [masks] aren't comfortable. We hate wearing them, too. The one preventable measure that we all have access to is a mask. So it's tough. It sucks. My face hurts at the end of a shift. It's not comfortable, but it's necessary."

Doors open for the costume party tonight at 7 p.m. There is $500 in cash prizes for our costume contest, plus Sativa’s Birthday Drag Extravaganza show is starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at http://julyoween.bpt.me until 7 PM. Tickets are limited and will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis.