In July, the Phoenix restaurant Oven+Vine reopened indoor dining, with a catch: Customers would have to show proof of vaccination.
It took just days for the protests to start.
Over the last few weeks, the cozy neighborhood wine bar, located on West Van Buren Ave in midtown has found itself unexpectedly at the center of a right-wing harassment campaign, after the news of its vaccine requirement went viral.
“It has been a little scary,” said Michelle Bethge, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Dylan Bethge. On Tuesday, the scene at Oven+Vine was peaceful; at one point, a couple stopped to compliment Bethge on the safety measures the restaurant has implemented, all while diners sipped wine on the shady patio.
But just a few weeks earlier, a group of several dozen protesters had picketed the restaurant, chanting “freedom” and harassing customers according to videos posted on the group’s Telegram channel. The restaurant received a barrage of threatening calls and emails; Bethge’s home address and personal phone number were disseminated online. She feared things would “turn violent,” she said.
“I didn’t do it thinking it was going to be an issue,” Bethge said of her decision to impose the vaccine requirement. Some members of her family are high-risk for Covid, she explained, and because the restaurant’s space was “really small,” Oven+Vine had not allowed indoor dining since the onset of the pandemic. When the restaurant decided to open indoors, in mid-July, proof of vaccination seemed like a natural safety measure to adopt.
Diners at Oven+Vine are asked to show their vaccination card in order to be served inside, but customers without proof of vaccination may still sit outdoors — “I don't care to know their business,” Bethge said. She assumed that the restaurant was small enough that the policy would “slide under the radar.” It did not.
The harassment campaign was initiated partly by one notorious anti-mask protester in the Phoenix area, Ethan Schmidt, who showed up to Oven+Vine days after AZFamily ran a story on the restaurant’s vaccine policy. In the video, Schmidt confronts Bethge, warning that she was “going to get blasted all over the internet,” and refuses to leave the property. At one point, he turns to the diners and scoffs, “you guys are communists I suppose.” He was later arrested, as was documented in videos from his Instagram page, for pulling similar antics at a Scottsdale sports bar.
In a phone call, Schmidt boasted to Phoenix New Times that he was “highly banned all over the internet” and was fighting for “human rights.” Oven+Vine patrons, he claimed, had “ganged up on me and harassed me,” although his video of the incident just shows one customer calmly asking him to leave as he refuses.
That video went viral, however, picking up more than 200,000 views on TikTok, and finding its way to various channels on Telegram, an app that has emerged as a hotbed for right-wing misinformation about the pandemic.
Phone calls began pouring in to Oven+Vine — hundreds, Bethge said, which have slowed but not yet stopped. As she spoke with New Times an unknown number called her phone that she let go to voicemail. “That could be one,” she said. The callers left numerous, sometimes threatening voicemails: “Hi Michelle,” a caller said in a voicemail Bethge played. “We all know what you’re doing. It’s against the constitution, it’s against civil rights.” One caller, she recalled, “said they hope that our building is struck by lightning and burned to the ground.”
Emails that Oven+Vine received were similarly crude: “Are you not a human being?! Are you a communist??? DISGUSTING!!!” reads an email Bethge shared with New Times; others called the owners fascists.
Of course, despite protesters’ claims, vaccine mandates by private businesses are not illegal (nor does asking for vaccine status violate HIPAA, which Bethge said was a common refrain among critics). If an individual’s disability prevents them from receiving a vaccine, businesses are required to provide accommodations, some legal experts say — but Oven+Vine, at least, is doing so by providing outdoor seating.
Still, protesters have seized on the few local businesses that have begun to implement vaccine mandates. It could be one reason why Phoenix businesses have been more hesitant to do so, while cities like New York adopt vaccine requirements for restaurants. Oven+Vine, at this point, is still one of very few restaurants to have adopted the requirement in the city. A search on Yelp, which now allows you to filter establishments by their vaccine policies, turned up no results for restaurants requiring proof of vaccination in Phoenix. In Los Angeles, by comparison, a search found nearly 20.
One local restaurant owner who requested not to be identified for fear of inciting more harassment was also protested and doxxed after imposing a vaccine mandate: “The reaction was visceral,” he said, adding that even though he thought protesters’ claims were absurd, it was still hard to cope with “hundreds of people telling you that you’re a Nazi.” Within days, his restaurant’s Yelp rating sunk down a full point as protesters flooded it with poor reviews.
The tide may be turning, however: This week, cocktail bar MercBar announced it, too, would require proof of vaccination for service. And Oven+Vine, at least, has no plans to change the policy. The harassment, Bethge said, “goes in waves” as their address and phone number is reposted. But, she added, “we’ve gotten a lot of love, too.” The restaurant had found new customers, who felt safer with the vaccine requirement. All in all, Bethge said, business was "busier than we anticipated."