“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus says these words in the Gospels, and they came to mind when I read that In-N-Out Burger — known for putting Bible verses on its cups and bags — is agitating against The City’s public health rules.
Last week, the Department of Public Health ordered the popular fast-food chain to temporarily close its only San Francisco store due to violations of COVID-19 safety measures. In-N-Out had repeatedly violated a health order requiring it to check customers’ vaccination status before allowing them to eat inside.
The company called the health order “intrusive” and “government overreach.”
“We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government,” In-N-Out Chief Legal & Business Officer Arnie Wensinger told KRON 4 News, which first reported the story. “We fiercely disagree with any government dictate that forces a private company to discriminate against customers who choose to patronize their business.”
The Jefferson Street location has now reopened, sans indoor dining.
Response to the controversy was swift on social media. Pro-COVID types celebrated the fast-food chain’s refusal and blasted San Francisco’s health mandates. Meanwhile, In-N-Out’s critics took the opportunity to extoll the superiority of Shake Shack and take potshots at In-N-Out’s allegedly subpar fries.
“tbh, san francisco should mandate in n out to make better fries,” wrote @Alex_Abads on Twitter.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with In-N-Out’s shoestring-style fries, which Brandon Mercer of SFGATE once described as “soggy, sickly beige, under-salted, wilted, and unworthy of being called a fry at all. More like potatoes boiled in oil until submission.” They perfectly complement the “Animal Style” Double-Double, on a bun made of old-fashioned sponge dough, that I will occasionally wolf down during a road trip. (This is especially true if you drown the spuds in cheese, ketchup, or both.)
The Bible verses on the fast-food chain’s cups and bags, on the other hand, have always struck me as bizarre. But since I generally don’t seek spiritual advice from soda cups, I ignore the ham(burger)-handed proselytizing.
After all, In-N-Out’s virtuous approach to the fast food business distinguishes it from other chains. It buys beef from regional producers to ensure each customer gets the freshest burger possible. The company also cuts its fries from whole potatoes in-store, a process you can usually watch unfolding in the background as you wait for your glistening red tray.
The family-owned Irvine burger chain also pays its workers higher wages than similar restaurants.
“In-N-Out workers get at least $13 an hour to start, and can eventually rise through the ranks to store manager — no college degree necessary,” wrote Mike McPhate of the California Sun in 2018. “Benefits include 401(k) plans, paid vacation, and health, dental, and vision plans. (California’s minimum wage for large companies recently bumped up to $11, and is required by law to hit $15 by 2022.)”
In-N-Out workers who become managers can make six-figure salaries.
“On wages and benefits, they really are the best large chain,” Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, told McPhate.
That’s what makes In-N-Out’s decision to go anti-vaccine so disappointing. Most establishments in The City have seamlessly transitioned to abiding by the vaccine mandate for indoor diners. The process is as easy as flashing your ID before you order a drink.
It’s a minor inconvenience compared to a deadly virus that continues to spread thanks to people who refuse to follow health rules. If In-N-Out cares so much about its customers that it won’t freeze its beef patties, why is it fine allowing its dining rooms to become an incubator for whatever dreadful COVID variant might come after Delta?
Cooperating with public health rules also seems a lot easier than closing down the restaurant’s indoor dining altogether, which is what In-N-Out opted to do.
But this is not a flap over logistics. No, it’s pure political posturing.
This is not the first time In-N-Out’s political stances have stirred drama. In 2018, the chairman of the California Democratic Party called for Democrats to boycott the chain after it made a $25,000 contribution to the California Republican Party. The boycott fizzled quickly, especially after it came to light that the company has contributed to both political parties.
Of course, public health policy should not be political. Local health departments mandate many rules to protect the health and safety of restaurant workers and patrons. Strict rules govern the storage and handling of food and dictate employee conduct. Ever seen one of those “employees must wash hands” signs on the wall of a restaurant bathroom? It’s the law, and one we all hope In-N-Out’s employees follow to the letter.
Intrusive? Perhaps, but it’s a law aimed at preventing disease, and it’s a requirement for doing business here – just like the vaccine mandate for indoor dining.
In-N-Out should cease the anti-virtue signaling on vaccination, stick to making burgers and render unto the SF Public Health Department its rightful jurisdiction over COVID health rules.