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Inslee Announces Restaurant Workers Can Start Getting Vaccinated March 31

The accelerated timeline comes as restaurants prepare to increase capacity to 50 percent

A vial of COVID-19 with a red label, next to a needle with a blue cap
Restaurant workers in Washington are among the next groups to be vaccinated, starting March 31.

Citing a better outlook for COVID vaccine supply in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the next two tiers of eligible groups, including restaurant workers, can sign up to get inoculated starting March 31. This is a much clearer and more accelerated timeline than officials previously revealed.

Before Inslee made his announcement, it was unclear when restaurant workers would get vaccinated in Washington. Even though other food service employees — including those at grocery stores — became eligible March 17, restaurant workers were not included in that group. Washington’s Department of Health (DOH) said the reasoning behind the decision to separate them out to a later eligibility tier was because “restaurants are generally smaller and have alternative options to avoid congregation of customers, such as takeout and delivery options.” But with restaurants allowed to increase capacity to 50 percent starting March 22, that justification didn’t hold up to scrutiny, and the state’s vaccine plan didn’t contain much clarification for later vaccine groups besides noting they would be next in line this “spring/summer.”

In his March 18 press conference announcing an expedited timeline, Inslee admitted that there were other factors involved in placing other food industry employees ahead of hospitality workers, besides those supposed “alternate” options for restaurants. “We decided the food service workers and grocery workers to some degree were more essential, in a sense, because we get our basic food stuffs from grocery stores,” he said. “This is not to diminish the importance of restaurants. But we made that decision, and I think it’s a justifiable decision. Had we done them at the same time, it would have made about a two-week difference.”

While the accelerated eligibility for restaurant workers is good news, time is of the essence. Inslee said the new groups starting March 31 will open vaccine access to 2 million more Washingtonians, in addition to the 3 million already eligible, and supply still struggles to keep up with demand. The state has rapidly increased its capacity in delivering shots over the past couple of months, and finding appointments is starting be less of a challenge.

On that front, officials said the state is working on improving its online vaccine locator tool, and continually looks for ways to make the inoculation process go more efficiently with help from the private sector, such as Starbucks. Here in Seattle, Lumen Field recently opened as a massive vaccine clinic, and the city says the cite capable of delivering 150,000 vaccine doses per week when operating at full strength.