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Seattle Is Reopening for Indoor Dining, but Restaurant Workers Are Still Ineligible to Receive the COVID Vaccine

And they may not be able to get one for months

A view of vaccine vials against a light blue background with labels that read “COVID-19”
Washington is still in the process of ramping up its vaccine distribution efforts.

Starting Monday, February 1, Seattle restaurants and bars will open back up for indoor dining after being closed since mid-November. That means people working at places with dine-in service will once again be in the presence of unmasked customers eating in an enclosed setting, putting them at risk of contracting COVID-19. But, as it stands, restaurant workers are not in any of the state’s high-priority tiers to receive the COVID vaccine, and may not be eligible for months.

Washington has recently ramped up vaccination efforts, but is still in the process of administering shots to frontline health care workers, first responders, residents 65 years or older, and those 50 and older who live in multigenerational households. Once those groups are taken care of, the next tiers include workers 50 years and older in agriculture, food processing plants, and grocery stores; people 16 or older with two or more comorbidities; and critical workers in congregate settings under the age of 50.

But those congregate settings, at the moment, don’t include restaurants, and the current timeline extends through spring without mentioning the hospitality industry at all. The plan also doesn’t seem to account for flukes, like a medical freezer failure on Thursday, January 28, that resulted in a late-night rush to administer shots before the vaccine expired.

“At this time there are no plans to change the prioritization for these workers,” says Danielle Koenig, health promotion supervisor for Washington State Department of Health. “We recognize a lot of different service industry professions are at increased risk for COVID-19, but it will take time to get to all of them. Due to limited supply of vaccine, we have to focus on the highest risk groups first, both by profession, by age, by living situation, and by medical conditions. We want everyone to get the vaccine to be protected from COVID-19, but unfortunately, not everyone can get the vaccine first. That’s why we’ve had to make the tough decisions, with community input, to place groups in their current order.”

Koenig also said that grocery store workers are prioritized in the next tier “because of the volume of customers that come through their place and constant risk for COVID-19 exposure,” while restaurants are generally smaller and “have ways to avoid a large group of customers, such as takeout and delivery options.” She added, “We will get to restaurant workers in later phases when more vaccine is available.”

The argument for putting restaurant workers in a higher-priority group for the vaccine has been made before, but some of the points may bear repeating as restaurants reopen in Washington. Since the beginning of the pandemic, having restaurants and bars open for takeout and delivery was considered an “essential service” throughout Washington’s various shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, and some of the most alarming outbreaks over the past year have occurred at restaurants and hotels, particularly in kitchens where staff work in close proximity to each other.

If dining rooms were dangerous enough to close during periods of high COVID transmission, then it seems that workers in such settings should be considered a “high risk” category, like other groups in line for the vaccine after health care workers, grocery workers, and those over the age of 65. That’s not to mention the many restaurant employees under 50 who live in multigenerational households, and undocumented workers who are not afforded the same protections as others.

“There is a clear gap between the state seeming to say indoor dining is essential, but not doing everything necessary to keep workers safe,” says Sage Wilson a rep for the labor advocacy group Working Washington. “That’s not just restaurant workers, though — a lot of people are being treated as essential workers (grocery store workers, retail workers, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, etc.) in some ways, but not really getting the protections (or pay) that ought to go along with that.”

The discussion around prioritizing restaurant workers will continue not just in Seattle, but across the country, where dining rooms are either already reopened or preparing to open soon. And events like that Thursday night freezer failure will highlight how even the best-laid plans can’t always account for certain variables. If such an incident happened again, it may not be the worst idea in the world to have a group of high-risk workers on standby who keep late hours not far away from medical clinics.

With warnings about highly contagious new variants appearing in Washington state, and officials urging people who go out to double up on masks, the wisdom of reopening indoor dining at this time is up for debate. But finding a way to better protect workers who may be putting themselves — and others — at risk of COVID transmission could go a long way toward easing at least some concerns.