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Inslee Announces Accelerated Vaccine Timeline, But Restaurant Workers Still Not on the List

By late March, grocery store workers and those in the agriculture industry will be eligible

A small vial that says COVID-19 on the label, next to a needle with a blue top
Washington will start to reach a broader group of people for COVID vaccinations in March and April.

Vaccinations in Washington are ramping up. On Thursday, March 4, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new, accelerated timeline for the COVID-19 inoculation effort, now that the state expects expanded supply via a newly approved Johnson & Johnson shot. Still missing from the vaccine timeline are restaurant workers.

From the beginning, vaccines in the state initially focused on frontline health care workers and Washingtonians 65 years or older. Educators — pre-K through 12th grade — have been added to the queue as well, per a federal directive. But, starting around March 22, eligibility will open to an even wider swath of the population, including those who work in the agriculture industry and at grocery stores. By mid-April, the state expects to expand the pool once again, encompassing those 50 years of age or older with underlying health conditions and people living in certain congregate settings.

Washington restaurant workers aren’t listed in any of the groups on the horizon, though, and it’s unclear when they’ll join the list. The Center for Disease Control has suggested that those who work at restaurants should be considered “essential workers” eligible after “frontline” groups are taken care of. It’s up to local officials to develop more specific, targeted plans based on vaccine availability and other factors.

Cities such as New York and Los Angeles have already made restaurant workers eligible to receive COVID vaccines, based on somewhat more flexible plans in their respective states. Chicago restaurant workers are on target to receive them in March as well. Seattle has followed Washington’s directives closely, remaining locked into the vaccine priority tiers the state established in January, which does not place restaurant workers in the same category as grocery workers or others in the food industry. A spokesperson for the city said “it doesn’t have any plans to broaden the Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) vaccine eligibility timeline.”

But that timeline currently doesn’t extend past April 26, meaning that it likely will be at least two months until restaurant workers who aren’t in other eligible groups can receive a shot. Since Washington’s rough vaccine allocation plan was created, indoor dining has resumed across the state at 25 percent capacity. Restaurant, bar, and cafe employees continue to work in tight kitchens, while serving guests that must take off their masks to eat, putting themselves at greater risk to COVID exposure. While it’s good news that vaccine supply in Washington is steadily increasing, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan right now to protect people in such settings.