Oct 12, 2021 - Food and Drink
D.C. restaurants hit with "review bombs"
Illustration of Yelp logo with an angry face.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The politicization of pandemic policies has reached the online review platform Yelp, and has resulted in an increase in negative restaurant reviews targeting COVID-19 safety policies,

Why it matters: The food and service industry doesn't need any other hurdles to overcome following almost two years of constant COVID-related setbacks.

An influx of negative reviews from people who are angry about vaccination or mask policies can do real damage to businesses struggling to climb back from pandemic-induced financial problems.

What's happening: "Review bombing" or bombarding a restaurant with inauthentic reviews after it gains media attention or implements a new policy has become increasingly common for restaurants with vaccine requirements, Yelp says.

  • In one recent instance, restaurant Reliable Tavern tweeted about a spam user seemingly targeting local restaurants with the same negative Yelp review; the spammer was later banned. 

Yelp does have multiple systems in place to flag and remove reviews that aren't based on first-hand customer experiences.

The company tells Axios it's removed over 17,000 reviews nationally that violated its special COVID Content Guidelines since the start of the pandemic.

  • Businesses do have the option to opt-in or out of the platform's "proof of vaccination required" and "all staff fully vaccinated" attributes.
  • Business owners can't remove their business from the platform entirely.

Yes, but: Some D.C. restaurant owners say the company isn't doing enough to combat fake reviews—COVID-related or not. 

  • Josh Saltzman, co-owner of Ivy & Coney, says websites such as Yelp just allow annoyed patrons, who often don't reflect the rest of an establishment's clientele, to air out their complaints.
  • "There's no way that this guy went to 90 restaurants and ... writes the exact same review," Saltzman says of the spam review that also targeted Ivy & Coney. "That should automatically be caught by a filter." 

Chris Kennedy, who owns Reliable Tavern, says they haven't gotten pushback on their pandemic policies outside of that spam message, but negative reviews, pandemic-related or not, serve as another blow to struggling businesses.

  • Kennedy adds that he doesn't know how much reviews impact business as it's difficult to measure, but adds that numbers do matter to people glancing at Google to find a place to go and eat. A negative review can drag down ratings, he says.

Be smart: Earlier this year, some bars and music venues pushed the city for a blanket vaccination requirement for indoor venues. D.C. government instead encouraged individual restaurants to implement (and enforce) their own policies. 

  • At Ivy & Coney, Saltzman says, people have largely been supportive — just as they were on the first night vaccine cards were required, as Washington City Paper reported
  • "But you know, the reality is that it shouldn't be individual restaurants and bars," Saltzman adds. "It should be the D.C. government, and it would move a lot smoother."

Zoom out: Both New York City and Los Angeles have issued a blanket vaccine mandate for some indoor settings.

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