As states open vaccines and restaurants to all, wait staff and food service workers are often left behind. Some chefs have even opened pop-up spots to get their employees shots more quickly.
Over the course of the pandemic, some of the most dangerous activities were those many Americans dearly missed: scarfing up nachos, canoodling with a date or yelling sports scores at a group of friends at a crowded, sticky bar inside a restaurant.
Now, as more states loosen restrictions on indoor dining and expand access to vaccines, restaurant employees — who have morphed from cheerful facilitators of everyone’s fun to embattled frontline workers — are scrambling to protect themselves against the new slosh of business.
Some states have dropped mask mandates and capacity limits inside establishments — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still deem a potentially risky setting — further endangering employees.
Servers in Texas are dealing with all of the above. The state strictly limited early eligibility for shots, but last week opened access to all residents 16 and over, creating an overwhelming demand for slots. The governor recently dropped the state’s loosely enforced mask mandate, and allowed restaurants to go forth and serve all comers, with zero limitations.
“Texas is in a unique position because we have all these things going on,” said Anna Tauzin, the chief revenue and innovation officer of the Texas Restaurant Association.
The trade group is pairing with a health care provider to set aside days at mass vaccines sites in the state’s four biggest cities to target industry workers.
The industry has taken matters in its own hands in other places, too.
In Charleston, Michael Shemtov, who owns several spots, turned a food hall into a restaurant worker vaccine site on a recent Tuesday with the help of a local clinic. (The post-shot observation seating was at the sushi place; celebratory beers were tipped at an adjoining pizzeria.) Ms. Piscioniere and her partner eagerly availed themselves. “I am super relieved,” she said. “It’s been so hard to get appointments.”
In Houston, Legacy Restaurants — which owns the Original Ninfa’s and Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys — is running two vaccine drives for all staff members and their spouses, moves the owners believe will protect workers and assure customers.
While hours and wages have recovered somewhat, the industry remains hobbled by rules that most other businesses — including airlines and retail stores — have not had to face. The reasons point to a sadly unfortunate reality that never changed: indoor dining, by nature of its actual existence, helped spread the virus.
“Masks would normally help to protect people in indoor settings but because people remove masks when dining,” said Christine K. Johnson, professor of epidemiology and ecosystem health at the University of California, Davis, “there are no barriers to prevent transmission.”
“Most people in our government have considered restaurants nonessential luxuries,” said Rick Bayless, the well-known Chicago restaurateur, whose staff scoured all vaccines sites for weeks to get workers shots. “I think that’s shortsighted. The human race is at its core social and when we deny that aspect of our nature, we do harm to ourselves. Restaurants provide that very essential service. It can be done safely, but to minimize the risk for our staff, we should be prioritized for vaccination.”
Texas did not designate as early vaccine recipients any workers beyond those in the health care and education sectors, but is now open to all.
“The state leadership decided to ignore our industry as a whole as well as grocery workers,” said Michael Fojtasek, the owner of Olamaie in Austin. “Now because our state leadership has decided to lift a mask mandate while not giving us an opportunity to be vaccinated, it has created this really challenging access issue.” He has switched to a takeout sandwich business for now, and won’t reopen until every worker gets a shot, he said.
Many restaurant owners, however, said that they are going their own way with the rules, and customers often lead them there. “There is a lot of shaming that goes on if you open up and you don't have your tables six feet apart,” said Don Miller, the owner of the County Line, a small chain in Texas and New Mexico.
Moreover, his places continue to require masks and keep them at the hostess station for anyone who “forgets.” Most of his young work force, however, will likely wait a long time for a jab. “I think it is important for them to be vaccinated,” he said. “It hasn't resonated with them as it hasn’t been available to that age group.”
In Charleston, Mr. Shemtov was inspired by accounts of the immunization program in Israel, which was considered successful in part because the government took vaccines to job sites. “If people can’t get appointments, let’s bring them to them.”
Other restaurants are devoting hours to making sure workers know how to sign up, locating leftover shots and networking with their peers. Some offer time off for a shot and the recovery period for side effects.
Still, some owners are not taking chances. “If we go out of business because we are one of the few restaurants in Arizona that won’t reopen, so be it,” Ms. Leoni said. “Nothing is more important than someone else’s health or safety.”
Source: New York Times