Friday, October 01, 2021

Where is it safe to eat

Ian Ayres

Ian Ayres & Eni Iljazi

When businesses started opening their doors again as Coronavirus restrictions eased, a flurry of customers often found themselves standing in front of locked doors. A lot of restaurants and other retailers have either not survived the pandemic or had to curtail their operating hours. Several times we have returned to a favorite store only to find it closed.  

Google has helped. They stayed up to date with whether businesses were open and their hours of operation, and they let us know if a restaurant offered outdoor dining or curbside pick-up. 

 In part, Google has been able to do this because of its cutting-edge AI technology called Duplex (demoed in 2018). Duplex bots - which sound amazingly human -- can call businesses to find out whether they offer curbside pick-up or whether they have special Labor Day hours. Then Google includes this information in their Google Maps and Search results. When Duplex first rolled out, many retailers didn't even realize that they were speaking with a bot. (Google later updated Duplex to mention during the conversation that it was an automated service calling.) 

This automated calling not only helps customers, it also cuts down the hassle to retailers.  Restaurants or other establishments only have to answer one call instead of hundreds pouring in from individual customers. 

Google should go further. It should help customers learn about retailers’ policies on vaccines. Just as it added information on curbside pickup to its search results, it should use Duplex to gather information on whether an establishment’s employees are vaccinated and whether customers are required to prove that they are vaccinated. 

Google search results already helpfully include “health and safety” information – including whether staff and customers have to wear masks. But they don’t provide information on whether staff and customers are vaccinated. You’d have to call Spago (as we did) to learn that it doesn’t require its staff to be vaccinated.

Google should also add vaccination filters to their search options. In Google Maps, you can easily filter your restaurant search to just show you Thai restaurants. But you can’t look for restaurants that have vaccinated staff. 

We know that such filters are possible, because they already exist on Yelp. But Yelp requires businesses to log in and manually add this information to their page. A local Branford restaurant, Genaro’s Pizza, requires its employees to be vaccinated but you wouldn’t learn this from their Yelp page. Google has a much broader market reach, and its bots can do the heavy lifting collecting the vaccine policy information. 

Providing vaccine information helps create an associational marketplace, where people with compatible preferences can find each other and make informed associational choices. Google can help Americans exercise a different kind of dimension of freedom. You might be free not to be vaccinated, but I should be free not to unknowingly spend time with you.

A lot of customers want (or should want) to know about whether staff and other customers are vaccinated. Unvaccinated people are 4 times more likely to contract COVID. Patronizing fully vaccinated venues lowers your chances of getting sick. It can be uncomfortable to ask your server if they are vaccinated. Most people would prefer to find out in advance before they get in their car.

The Biden administration has been meeting with businesses urging them to mandate employee vaccines. But one of the impediments to businesses adopting vaccine mandates is that it is hard for consumers to learn and shift their business toward safer establishments. Google can help change that.

Of course, an associational marketplace might in some cases lead to perverse results. Some anti-vaxxers might choose to boycott businesses that enforce public safety measures. But buycotts tend to be much more economically powerful than boycotts. Imagine, for example, that just 10% of consumers care deeply about wanting to patronize establishments that require staff vaccinations, and bizarrely, that 20% prefer going to businesses with unvaccinated employees, with the remaining 70% not caring one way or the other. Even stacking the preferences against buycotts, we might expect that 3 out of 10 firms could profitably require vaccine mandates.

Moreover, Google could tailor its filters to disable unwanted association. For example, the Association of American Law Schools each year curates an online database of people looking for law teaching jobs. In the past, the database tool allowed potential employers to search for minority candidates who are interested in teaching torts but did not allow searches just for white candidates. [We were surprised to see that “white-only” searches are now allowed.] The google filter might analogously let customers search for businesses that require customer or staff vaccines but remove that option for businesses with more dangerous policies.

Channeling patrons’ natural desire to consume safely can be a powerful tool in our efforts to vaccinate. But consumers need ready access to information to make informed choices. With Google’s help that information can literally be at our fingertips.

Older Posts
Newer Posts