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Washington’s Reasonings for Delay in Vaccinating Restaurant Workers Are Weak

The state’s arguments behind not including restaurant employees in expanded COVID vaccine pool don’t hold up to scrutiny with capacity limits increasing soon

A blue-gloved hand pulls a COVID vaccine-labeled vial from a row of similar vials.
Restaurant workers are still not eligible to receive the COVID vaccine in Washington.

Erick Vazquez says he’s washed his hands so much over the past year, his skin often cracks. The 19-year-old works at Los Agaves in Pike Place Market. The all-day, family-owned Mexican street food counter and caterer sells tacos, tamales, burritos, and tortas for both takeout and occasional dine-in guests. Vazquez works the register and does other tasks for the small operation, but was concerned about handling lots of cash until the business was able to install a contactless payment system. Even though Los Agaves is diligent about sanitization, Vazquez says COVID-19 is “always in the back of my mind, gnawing at me.” He scrubs his hands constantly, just to be safe, and once wore a five-layer mask in stifling heat.

As a member of a multigenerational household, living with his mom and taking care of a young niece, Vazquez fears inadvertently transmitting a deadly disease to his family. He says he’s grateful to have a job that helps put food on the table, but working in Pike Place presents risks for potential COVID exposure. Though the market was quiet for much of 2020, warmer weather is on the way, and, beginning March 22, Washington will allow indoor dining to open at 50 percent capacity, among other loosened business restrictions. “The crowds, they rise quickly,” Vazquez says. Despite the increased risk, neither he nor any of his coworkers are eligible to receive a vaccine.

Starting Wednesday, March 17, Washington officially expands the vaccination pool to more eligible groups, including grocery store workers, those in the agriculture industry, and people who work at food processing plants. But restaurant workers still have no idea when they’ll be joining the line. Since releasing its rough vaccine timeline in early 2021, Washington’s Department of Health (DOH) has separated restaurant employees from other high-risk critical workers in the food industry who operate in congregate settings. When asked why, the DOH told Eater Seattle: “Restaurants are generally smaller and have alternative options to avoid congregation of customers, such as takeout and delivery options.”

This argument grows weaker by the day, particularly with indoor dining capacity slated to double next week. The hospitality industry is not a monolith, and while restaurants aren’t forced to reopen to the maximum capacity allowed, most workers don’t have much say in the matter. Even restaurants that avoid dine-in altogether still have tight kitchens where workers must be in close proximity to each other. One University of California, San Francisco study — which hasn’t been peer-reviewed — suggests that line cooks have the highest risk of mortality during the pandemic. And Washington’s own health officer, Dr. Scott Linquist, recently told WBUR, “When we look at the second most common transmission in Washington state, it’s restaurants and bars.”

Iconic Seattle seafood chain Ivar’s provides a stark illustration of the complicated dynamics at work in the state’s dining rooms. The company has multiple restaurants, but also a chowder plant that counts as a food processing facility. As such, the 55 Ivar’s employees who work at the plant are eligible to receive the vaccine now — but more than 300 people who work at the restaurants and actually serve the food are not. Ivar’s president Bob Donegan says the DOH’s reasoning behind separating these employees into different eligibility tiers “makes no sense.”

As the timeline stands now, restaurant workers may have to wait more than a month before they can get access to COVID vaccines, and possibly longer. The currently-mapped-out tiers run through April 26, and the DOH says that restaurant workers aren’t going to be added until the next group (phase 2), which is slated for “spring/summer.” With the federal government urging the entire country to make all adults eligible for the vaccine by May 1, there doesn’t seem to be any time window when restaurant workers would be prioritized before the general public — by that time, they may have even more difficulty making appointments as part of such a large pool. Meanwhile, cities 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, and Massachusetts recently announced that such employees would be eligible on March 22.

State officials say that including restaurant workers in an accelerated timeline is under discussion. “However, vaccine supply does continue to be limited, which makes eligibility decisions extremely difficult,” a DOH spokesperson tells Eater. In King County, approximately 400,000 people will be eligible starting this week, but the county only receives around 50,000 first doses per week, so getting enough shots is already a challenge. The King County Public Health Insider, the local health department’s official blog, warned on March 12, “for the next few weeks, not everyone who is eligible for a vaccine will be able to find an appointment.” But there are hints that vaccine supply will soon increase dramatically soon across the country, and other states, such as Ohio (with a bigger population than Washington), are adjusting their vaccine eligibility plans accordingly.

Local health officials also emphasize that distributing vaccines equitably continues to be a top concern. King County health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin recently said that 71 percent of white people over 65 in King County have gotten the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine versus 60 percent of Latinos and 54 percent of Black residents in the same age range. But including restaurant workers could help in that regard. “If we want vaccine access to be equitable, we must include restaurant and hospitality workers alongside other essential workers,” says Trey Lamont, owner of Belltown Jamaican restaurant Jerk Shack and board member of the Seattle Restaurant Alliance, which recently circulated one of several petitions urging Inslee to reconsider including restaurant workers in expedited vaccine tiers. “Forty percent of our team members across the state are people of color who have been reporting for work throughout a deadly pandemic.”

The arguments overall for prioritizing restaurant workers in vaccine distribution plans have been made several times before (including in other cities and states), but they bear repeating: Opening up restaurants to more customers without protecting their employees simply seems callous, illogical, and irresponsible. “We have been one of the hardest-hit industries, as well as one of the few industries where guests can take their masks off and have our teams exposed without protection,” says Musang chef-owner Melissa Miranda. “We should be protected.”

When Vazquez goes to work next Monday, he knows that Pike Place might really start bustling. He loves what he does, but there’s a dread that comes with it. Getting a vaccine wouldn’t solve everything, but it would help put his mind at ease. “We can get sick at any time,” Vazquez says. “I feel like we have been at the front lines, seven days a week, giving people a hot meal. It’s a demanding job.”