“Other Essential Workers”

Richmond restaurants eagerly await vaccine.

Warmer weather and a fully vaccinated staff may be a huge selling point for restaurants this spring. 

The Association of American Medical Colleges urges that the vaccination will allow people to return to some semblance of normal. 

Masks and social distancing aren’t – and, according to the association, shouldn’t be – going away anytime soon. But there is a sense of hope for the first time in a year that yes, we can start to enjoy the simple pleasures that exist outside the four walls of our pandemic pods.

“I think there’s a correlation between more people dining out and the vaccine,” says Perch and InstaBowl owner Mike Ledesma. “We see our numbers going up – we’ve been 16 to 20% busier lately.”

The rapid inception, manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine is, in no uncertain terms, extraordinary. Since the first dose was given to a New York nurse Dec. 14, 2020, 82.6 million vaccines have been administered in the U.S. 

And, as of March 5, 16.5% of Virginia’s population had been vaccinated with at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

While these numbers sound promising, vaccine distribution and administration is no walk through the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. It’s … complicated.

“We’ve been operating with a supply shortage this entire time,” says Richmond and Henrico health districts public information officer Cat Long. “When Governor Northam said we were entering phase 1b, the next day we found out there were not enough federal reserve supplies of vaccines, so we’ve had to truncate this phase.” 

As of March 5, even if your industry fell under phase 1b, only adults 65 and older and front-line essential workers including police, fire, corrections and homeless shelter workers, and child care and primary and secondary teachers and staff were eligible for the vaccine.

A March 8 update from Long amended the timeline for when phase 1b will open for the rest of the front-line essential workers. Richmond and Henrico health districts are now open to all of phase 1a and phase 1b.

The efficacy of vaccine distribution depends on many variables, all of which involve fallible humans. But the vaccines are still coming in, and now Long says Richmond and Henrico health districts have supplies of Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to administer. 

Within the framework of each phase, Long says people are further prioritized.

“First we screen for the most elderly, then we screen for Black and Latinx individuals who have been disproportionately affected by the virus,” Long says. “And then we consider ZIP codes, so which cities and counties have been most affected by hospitalizations and death.” 

Once people are eligible for the vaccine, they can seek out vaccination sites including local health departments, pharmacies, health care systems and employer-based occupational health units which are really big companies that sign up for on-site testing. 

Local entrepreneurs Chris Chandler and Mike Damon are hoping they can add yet another testing site to that list. 

Chandler, the founder of local delivery service Chop Chop RVA, and Damon, who works in the medical device world, have recently opened three drive-thru COVID-19 Test Here facilities across the tri-county area. 

These facilities offer 24-hour-turnaround PCR results, which many employers require, and rapid test results within five minutes. Unlike other testing facilities, Chandler says Test Here can guarantee you’ll get a testing slot the same day you sign up, a boon for restaurants that have had workers exposed to the virus. 

“We are interested in vaccine distribution,” Chandler says. “As soon as they can make it accessible we will offer it, we have the right insurance and licensing and medical professionals onsite. We just have to figure out what the government is going to do.”

According to Long, the state is currently vaccinating all of phase 1a and all of phase 1b. She notes that as long as demand for the vaccine remains high, each week supplies will be divided as follows: “50% seniors, 23% individuals with qualifying conditions or disabilities, 23% phase 1b frontline essential workers and 4% phase 1a frontline essential workers and adults living in congregate settings.”

The latter half of phase 1b, which has just become eligible for the vaccine, encompasses front-line essential workers like grocery store workers, including the stewards at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market. The local grocer’s marketing director, Colin Beirne, says staff members have preregistered for the vaccine, but right now they’re in a “holding pattern.” 

“Our HR department sent out the initial sign-up link, and we’ve been getting some updates through the Health Department. We probably signed up late January/early February,” Beirne says. 

As of March 2, Ellwood’s had not received any concrete updates from the Health Department about when exactly workers would be able to receive the vaccine – though Long notes that recently the department has updated its system so people are getting more frequent text and email updates. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations may be the same across the board, but different states have adopted their own distinct guidelines.

For instance, restaurant workers in Washington have been eligible to receive the vaccine since Feb. 1 while in Virginia, restaurant workers fall under phase 1c, “Other Essential Workers.”

If everyone in phase 1b has still not received the vaccine, when will phase 1c restaurants be able to post “fully vaccinated!” signs in their doors like victory banners? 

On March 5, Long said it was too soon to say when restaurant workers would be receiving the vaccine. But as of this week, Richmond and Henrico health districts are now including restaurant workers in phase 1b. People who preregistered under “food service” will now be automatically added to phase 1b and do not need to take further action.

Even with this recent amendment, one thing is certain – the delineation between front-line essential and other essential workers was never going to be universally agreed upon. 

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been ostensibly classified as ‘essential,’” writes sommelier Miguel de Leon in a recent piece for Bon Appetit. 

“But it’s become clearer to me that restaurant workers are considered a different kind of ‘essential’: laborers who do what others don’t want to do, not just making food and taking care of customers, but catering to their wants, not their needs.”

Restaurants have gone above and beyond these past 12 months to ensure the safety of their employees and guests, shifting gears – sometimes daily – depending on the latest proclamations from state officials. These have included outdoor dining, patio heaters, QR codes, bottled cocktails and virtual dinner parties. 

Diners have discovered joy in these spaces. For some, a delicious meal has been the only light at the end of a dark, harried week.  Now, restaurants can see their own light at the end of the tunnel. They’re not just sure how long that tunnel is. 

When asked what their plan is for having employees vaccinated, Eat Restaurant Partners director of hospitality Christopher Staples says via email that his only goal is to “provide access to the vaccine for all of our associates – we want them to feel safe while at work.” Staples says the group’s 13 restaurants employ about 450 people, all of whom have been preregistered via the Health Department. 

It’s still too early for Richmond restaurants to make any finite plans for vaccinating employees. But it’s a consideration that’s been added to small businesses’ ever-growing list of pandemic-related concerns: What’s our vaccination policy?

“We really want everyone to get the vaccine,” says Ledesma, who adds that he’s funneling as much reliable information to his employees as possible. “It’s looked favorably upon in our industry to get the vaccine. If you do get infected it hinders the business, right now it’s so tough as it is.”

Perch and InstaBowl are both looking for line cooks to join their teams. When asked if the vaccination will be brought up during job interviews, Ledesma says yes, it definitely will be discussed. 

“We will ask if you are vaccinated during the hiring process, and if not if you are more inclined to get the vaccine,” Ledesma says. “Plus we’ll still ask if you’re staying in your bubble, keeping safe.”

If a company wants to require its employees to get a vaccine, it legally has that right as long as it honors the medical and religious exemptions mandated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  

But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean employees will embrace a mandatory policy.  According to a January report by research and insights company Perceptyx, “60% of essential workers believe their employers should not require employees to be vaccinated before returning to the physical workplace.”

For Perch bartender Alyssa Kovin, the vaccine offers a glimmer of hope, “Not only because I’m on the front lines, and my friends are on the front lines, but also because I have a family who is immuno-compromised,” Kovin says. “I’m 100% for mitigating what is going on.”

Kovin, who celebrated a year at the restaurant this March, says she wishes there were more of a push to get restaurant workers vaccinated. “I’ve seen petitions started to help people in the industry with unemployment and to help them get vaccination information,” she says. “The people who sign it recognize how much we are putting on the line.” 

Additional Vaccine Resources:

Vaccine call center Henrico or Richmond: 205-3501

Vaccine call center Chesterfield, Powhatan, Colonial Heights: 318-8207

Vaccination locations:

Go to vaccinefinder.org and type in your ZIP code and what kind of vaccine you’re looking for. Appointments required at all locations. 

Curious about what phase your industry falls under? Check out all the industry designations and various exceptions online at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/categories-essential-workers.html. 

Pre-register for the vaccine at vaccinate.virginia.gov.


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