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As Restaurant Workers Become Eligible for Vaccines, Seattle Dining Proceeds with Caution and Hope

The next phase of vaccinations in Washington officially begins Wednesday, March 31

Several vials labeled VACCINE COVID-19 lined up against a light blue background
Restaurant workers are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 shot.
Shutterstock

After many weeks of frustration, restaurant workers across Washington officially have the green light to receive the COVID vaccine today, March 31. They are part of newly eligible groups in the state’s labyrinthian tiered vaccine rollout plan, which includes people 60 years of age or older, correctional facilities, settings where people experiencing housing insecurity live, those in construction and manufacturing, and people 16 years of age or older with two or more co-morbidities.

Vaccine appointments are available across Seattle as of Wednesday morning, but filling up fast. Those eligible to receive an inoculation should start with Washington’s vaccine locator tool. Washington’s “phase finder” tool is no longer active, so anyone who meets the new guidelines for eligibility can simply sign up without jumping through another hoop. On Instagram, several workers, including chef Wayne Johnson of the nonprofit FareStart, posted pics with enthusiastic captions upon receiving their shots.

Despite the welcome addition of restaurant workers to the vaccine pool, the timing may still slow down indoor dining reopenings around Seattle. Even though a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the first dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine is effective at preventing severe COVID illness, the CDC advises taking precautions until two weeks after receiving the second dose. That means, most restaurant workers — even if they manage to find a vaccine appointment right away — would still be at least a month or so out from being fully protected, per CDC guidelines. With the presence of contagious new COVID variants in the area and restaurants allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity, hospitality employees remain at high risk.

As such, not all chefs around town who have been cautious to this point about indoor dining are about to fling open their doors right away. Edouardo Jordan, award-winning chef of JuneBaby and Salare, tells Eater Seattle he’s still coming up with a game plan. “Would like for my staff to get vaccines, wait the two weeks afterward and start with a slow reopening,” he says. “I’m assuming we will be takeout-only until May, fingers crossed.”

In Kirkland, Cafe Juanita chef-owner Holly Smith — who wrote about her position about waiting for vaccines to arrive before reopening fully — says she’s in wait-and-see mode for onsite dining. “I think that given everyone’s vaccination timeline plus my need to hire [more staff], it would be May at the earliest,” she notes. “Beginning of June seems most realistic, but is still dependent on variants and our King County/surrounding county’s numbers.”

To Smith’s latter point, there’s reason for concern. On Friday, March 26, King County health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin gave an update on COVID cases in the region, sounding an alarm over increasing transmission. Over the past two weeks, cases are up 43 percent and Duchin said “there’s a good chance we’re looking at the beginning of a fourth wave,” even though it’s unclear how big the wave will be. If trends continue, King County could face returning to more restrictive phases in the state’s reopening plan, since the Washington Department of Health will automatically knock counties back a phase if COVID cases go above 200 per 100,000 people over the previous two-week period and rise higher than 5 per 100,000.

The effort to ramp up vaccinations will be key in mitigating the impacts of any new wave. Restaurant workers, along with the new groups, total around 2 million people, and pressure continues to mount on Gov. Jay Inslee to open vaccination eligibility to all Washingtonians 16 years of age or older before his stated target date of May 1. Inslee left open that possibility recently, saying that if the state receives more doses in the coming weeks, he would consider accelerating the timeline.

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