As the pandemic progressed, some of the most dangerous activities were the many Americans who missed them dearly: peeling nachos, doodling on a date, or shouting sports scores to a group of friends in a crowded, sticky bar in a restaurant.
Now as more states are loosening restrictions on indoor eating and expanding access to vaccines, restaurant workers who have grown from cheery mediators of the fun of all to contested frontline workers are scrambling to get ahead of the new sloshing of business to protect.
“It was really stressful,” said Julia Piscioniere, server at Butcher & Bee in Charleston. “People are okay with masks, but it’s not like it was before. I think people take restaurants and their workers for granted. It has taken a toll. “
The return to economic vitality in the United States is being led by places to eat and drink, which also suffered the highest losses in the past year. The industry’s financial hurdle is balancing the financial benefits of returning to regular working hours with worker safety, especially in states where theoretical access to vaccines exceeds actual supplies.
In many states, workers are still unable to receive shots, especially in regions where they weren’t included in priority groups this spring. Immigrants, who make up a large part of the restaurant workforce, are often afraid to sign up and fear that the process will legally embarrass them.
Some states have dropped mask mandates and capacity limits in facilities that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes are still potentially risky and continue to put workers at risk.
“It is important that food and beverage workers have access to the vaccine, especially since patrons who come have no guarantees that they will be vaccinated and that they will obviously not be masked when eating or drinking,” said Dr. Alex Jahangir, chairman of a coronavirus task force in Nashville. “This was very important to me as we are weighing the competing interests of vaccinating everyone as quickly as possible before more and more restrictions are lifted.”
Servers in Texas have to do with all of this. The state strictly limited early permission to shoot, but opened access to all residents 16 and over last week, creating an overwhelming demand for slots. The governor recently dropped the state’s loosely enforced mask mandate and allowed restaurants to serve all comers without restrictions.
“Texas is in a unique position because we have all of these things going on,” said Anna Tauzin, the chief revenue and innovation officer for the Texas Restaurant Association.
The trade group is working with a healthcare provider to schedule days at bulk vaccine sites in the state’s four largest cities to target industry workers.
In other places too, the industry has taken matters into its own hands.
In Charleston, Michael Shemtov, who owns multiple spots, turned a food hall into a vaccination center for restaurant workers on Tuesday with the help of a local clinic. (The observation seating after the shot was at the sushi place; celebratory beers were drunk in an adjoining pizzeria.) Ms. Piscioniere and her partner eagerly used. “I’m super relieved,” she said. “It was so hard to get appointments.”
In Houston, Legacy Restaurants – which includes the famous Po ‘Boys from Original Ninfa and Antone – are running two vaccinations for all employees and their spouses. Owners assume they will protect workers and insure customers.
Some cities and counties are also dealing with the problem. Last month, Los Angeles County reserved the most appointments for five high-volume locations two days a week for the estimated 500,000 food and agriculture workers, half of whom are restaurant workers. In Nashville, the health department has decided to provide 500 places a day specifically for people in the food and hospitality industries for the next week. It is possible that restaurants in the future may require their employees to be vaccinated.
April 12, 2021, 9:23 p.m. ET
Many businesses have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but there is broad consensus that hospitality has been hit hardest and that low-wage workers have suffered some of the biggest blows. In February 2020, for example, working hours in restaurants increased by 2 percent compared to the previous year. two months later, these hours were cut by more than half.
While hours and wages have rebounded somewhat, the industry remains hampered by rules that most other businesses – including airlines and retail stores – haven’t had to face. The reasons point to a sadly unfortunate reality that has never changed: indoor dining contributed to the spread of the virus due to its very existence.
A recent report by the CDC found that after the mask and other restrictions were lifted, on-site restaurants resulted in daily increases in cases and death rates between 40 and 100 days later. Although other venues have become widespread events – funerals, weddings, and large indoor events – many outbreaks in the community have found their roots in restaurants and bars.
“Masks would normally help protect people indoors, but because people remove masks while they eat,” said Christine K. Johnson, professor of epidemiology and ecosystem health at the University of California at Davis, “there are no barriers to transmission to prevent.”
Not all governments have viewed restaurant workers as “indispensable,” even if restaurants have been a very active part of American grocery chains throughout the pandemic – from semi-open locations to take-outs to cooking for the needy. The National Restaurant Association has urged the CDC to recommend that food service workers be included in priority groups of workers to receive vaccines, although not all states followed guidelines.
Almost every state in the nation has sped up its vaccination program and caters to nearly all adult populations.
“Most of the people in our government didn’t see restaurants as an essential luxury,” said Rick Bayless, the well-known Chicago restaurateur whose staff spent weeks ransacking vaccination sites to shoot workers. “I think that’s myopic. Humanity is social at its core and if we deny this aspect of our nature we are harming ourselves. Restaurants provide this very important service. It can be done safely, but to minimize the risk to our employees we should give priority to vaccination. “
Texas has not designated non-healthcare workers as early vaccine recipients, but is now open to all.
“The government has chosen to ignore our entire industry as well as the food workers,” said Michael Fojtasek, the owner of Olamaie in Austin. “Now that our leaders have decided to lift a mask mandate without giving us the opportunity to be vaccinated, this has created this really challenging access problem.” It has switched to a takeaway sandwich shop for the time being and won’t reopen until every worker gets a shot, he said.
However, many restaurant owners said they go their own way with the rules and customers often lead them there. “There’s a lot of shame that goes on when you open up and your tables aren’t three feet apart,” said Don Miller, the owner of County Line, a small chain in Texas and New Mexico.
In addition, his places still require masks and keep them on the hostess station for anyone who “forgets”. Most of its young workforce, however, will likely wait a long time for a push. “I think it’s important that you get vaccinated,” he said. “It didn’t resonate with them because it wasn’t available to this age group.”
The hospitality industry has far more Latino immigrants than most other businesses, and some fear registering for the vaccine will make it difficult to reopen. Many workers at Danielle Leoni’s Phoenix restaurant, the Breadfruit and Rum Bar, turned down unemployment insurance and were reluctant to sign up for a shot. “Before you can even make an appointment, you have to enter your name, your date of birth and your e-mail address,” said Ms. Leoni. “These are questions that put people off who try to stay in the background.”
In Charleston, Mr. Shemtov took inspiration from reports of the vaccination program in Israel, which was seen as successful in part because the government was bringing vaccines to construction sites. “If people can’t get appointments, we’ll bring them to them.”
Other restaurants devote hours to making sure staff know how to log in, find leftover footage and network with their peers. Some offer time out for a shot and the recovery period for side effects.
“We don’t want them to choose between an hour’s wages or a vaccine,” said Katie Button, owner of Curate and La Bodega in Asheville, NC
Still, some owners don’t take any chances. “If we go out of business because we’re one of the few restaurants in Arizona that won’t reopen, so be it,” said Ms. Leoni. “Nothing is more important than someone else’s health or safety.”