This story first published online at North Carolina Health News.

When you walk inside Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro, you better have proof that you’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 if you intend to sit down and have a taste of their pizzas, flank steak with roasted red pepper sauce, grilled Japanese eggplant with tomatoes and chickpeas, or the other treats on the menu.

Gabe Barker’s parents, Ben and Karen Barker, introduced him to the restaurant business early on at Durham’s much-loved Magnolia Grill. He insists that guests eating or drinking indoors, as well as his staff, be inoculated against the coronavirus.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have chosen to guide how we do business based around the health and safety,” Barker, owner of the Carrboro restaurant, said Thursday. “That policy to require both staff and guests to be vaccinated to be in the building is only an extension of that thought process.”

On Thursday afternoon, before opening up to the dinner crowd, Barker and others at his restaurant showed just how rigorous they are at enforcing that requirement.

Gov. Roy Cooper came for a visit to highlight his appreciation for businesses, small and large, insisting on vaccination against COVID-19 to try to help move the state beyond a global pandemic that has dogged North Carolinians for nearly 17 months.

Mae-Lyn Leonard, a bartender and server, greeted Cooper at the host station and checked his card showing that he got both doses of the Pfizer vaccine in March.

Leonard, who also was vaccinated the first week that essential workers in North Carolina were eligible, was busy mid-afternoon, checking the cards of the team that accompanied Cooper. Several Orange County state legislators, the mayors of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, and reporters who showed up for the event all had to flash their proof of vaccination, too.

Though Orange County has the highest vaccination rate in the state with 77 percent of the population fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services dashboard, many of the state’s other counties with lower rates are in a battle royal against the extremely contagious COVID-19 Delta variant.

On Thursday, 8,620 new lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in North Carolina. The number of hospitalizations has climbed to 3,552, and 883 of those patients, or 25 percent, were in adult intensive care unit beds. As of Wednesday, 1,474 ventilators were in use.

Barker’s wife, Marlee Gruber, is a nurse in the UNC Health cardiac intensive care unit. She was on his mind when he developed the restaurant’s vaccination policy.

“I told Gov. Cooper, my wife is a frontline health care worker, and they have all battled tirelessly to try and overcome this,” Barker said. “Anything that I can do, even in the smallest way, I believe is helping, and I hope that we can continue to move in the right direction.”

North Carolina trails much of the country in its statewide vaccination rate, with only 60 percent of the population over 18 fully vaccinated.

Cooper has tried to push more of the unvaccinated to get a shot by using cash rewards and scholarships, encouraging health care workers to do one-on-one conversations with the hesitant, getting shots to pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and community events.

In late July, the governor announced that state workers in his cabinet will be required to show proof of vaccination or be required to wear masks and get tested regularly, starting Sept. 1.

As colleges, universities and K-12 schools reopen across the state, health care providers are echoing Cooper’s call for more vaccination.

“We owe it to those health care workers, to the people who can get sick from COVID, to do everything we can to encourage vaccination because vaccinations are our way out of this pandemic,” Cooper continued. “That is the sure way of getting us through this pandemic.”

‘On the same page’

State Sen. Valerie Foushee, a Democrat from Orange County, was chatting with Pam Hemminger, the Chapel Hill mayor, inside the restaurant before Cooper arrived.

When asked why Orange County had been able to achieve the highest vaccination rate in the state, they responded:

“Our people trust science,” Hemminger said with a nod from Foushee.

Hemminger expanded on that, saying that towns, elected boards, the county health director, and others have taken a proactive stance.

“Our leaders have all been on the same page,” Hemminger said.

Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat who represents Orange and Caswell counties in the state House, took an opportunity to further highlight that aggressive stance against COVID.

“I just want to point out that Orange County has maintained one of the lowest transmission rates throughout the entire time in this pandemic, and in part, because we also have one of the highest vaccination rates in the state,” Meyer said. “If you want a community to thrive with a healthy business climate and great restaurants like Pizzeria Mercato, then the best thing you can do, as the governor said, is make sure that people are getting vaccinated.”

That takes more than actions by the governor and government, Meyer stressed.

“Businesses can play a huge role in setting community standards for how we approach health and safety,” Meyer said.

Schools can play a role, too, he added, noting that the Orange County school board decided earlier this week to require teachers and staff to get a vaccine by Sept. 23.

“Here we have Orange County schools setting the standard statewide for how they’re expecting employees and eligible students to be vaccinated or submit to a regular testing program so that kids can be back in school every day and do so safely,” Meyer said.

As the lawmakers and others talked about moving the state beyond the pandemic, the aroma of freshly cooked garlic and other seasonings wafted through the restaurant.

While the restaurant workers prepared to fill restaurant tables with pizzas and other dishes, Cooper told reporters who often ask him whether he will issue a vaccine mandate that nothing is off his table yet.

He said he’s looking to other businesses to follow Pizzeria Mercato’s example.

“This is the kind of thing that I think will spread,” Cooper said. “We talked about our public schools . . . and not many of them were going to require masks. Now we have over 85 percent of our children who are wearing masks in public schools and it’s because we got local buy-in. People spent the time they needed to learn about what was going on. So I think that’s positive.”

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina.

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