Last Thursday, the pastry chef Fany Gerson, who runs Fan-Fan Doughnuts and La Newyorkina, was among the first group of restaurant workers who received the COVID-19 vaccine in New York City. It was overwhelming, she says: “They give you the shot and then you go to a waiting area just to make sure you don’t have a reaction. I literally just started bawling.”
Since the restaurant shutdown in March, she and her husband Danny Ortiz de Montellano Luft, an owner of Casa Publica, had been in a constant state of caution and concern, because he has Crohn’s disease and hemophilia, and neither of them could work for home. “I feel like we’ve been on edge since day one because we’ve been working,” Gerson explains. “It was very cathartic.”
Last week, when Governor Andrew Cuomo said that restaurant workers were eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, the industry felt the same sense of relief for the first time in almost a year. Especially in light of the imminent return of indoor dining in the city. “I know so many people in the restaurant industry who’ve been scared every day to go to work,” says Matthew Paneth, who runs the bar at Emma Peel Room and Marshall Stack. “I don’t think I’m at a huge risk, but I care about my industry.”
Servers and cooks subsequently rushed to make their first appointment — and encountered the hurdles and scarce appointments that have plagued the state’s vaccination rollout.
“I just had a bunch of tabs open and kept clicking search on Wednesday. It was a very irrational kind of erratic search process of just refreshing and clicking,” says Patrick, a server at a downtown restaurant. He did manage to score an appointment in Brooklyn for what he thought was the following week, on February 10, before realizing it was for a few hours later, at 1 p.m.
“I think I was just not ready to accept that it was sort of happening,” he says.
When Patrick got to the vaccination site, they tried to turn him away. The site manager, he says, told him, “This is just for front-line medical and people over 65.” Patrick explained there was a change in the eligibility rules, which he says the site manager contested. “She tried to explain it to me as if I were just very confused about what’s happening,” he adds. “The site manager refused to talk to anyone else or refused to hear us out for a really long time.”
He tried reaching out to NYC Health + Hospitals and he still couldn’t get an answer. Eventually, after the site manager made a phone call, he was able to get his first vaccine dose. “I cried in the snowbank for a while. I got really mad,” he says. “I was condescending. I pleaded. There was just no feeling that I didn’t fully express.”
Patrick could have easily given up and left without a shot. He persevered, but he was lucky to get an appointment in the first place.
“They don’t even bother picking up,” says Maxi Lau, who runs Maxi’s Noodles in Flushing, of vaccine sites. After failing to make an appointment online, she’d tried a handful of sites nearby. She tried reaching out to local connections, too, including the Flushing Business Improvement District, but it wasn’t able to help. “They said there’s nothing, everything is overbooked.” (Lau has been taking a proactive approach, trying to make appointments for staff.)
One server at a West Village restaurant says that while she got her first dose on February 5, the majority of her co-workers have had difficulty getting appointments. Simply making an appointment has meant navigating a confusing maze of websites, a system that Mayor Bill de Blasio has admitted is “too cumbersome.”
Appointments are snatched up instantly because of supply issues: The New York Post reports that most vaccine sites are open only four days a week, and while 50 percent of vaccines at the newly announced Citi Field site will be reserved for restaurant workers and taxi drivers, a mere 800 doses will reportedly be available the first week.
Language barriers — 60 percent of New York’s restaurant’s workforce are immigrants and not all of them are proficient in English — are another problem, and mixed messaging has also led to confusion. While the city government said restaurant workers were immediately eligible, Cuomo said eligibility would start February 8. “For two days, you could go onto the Health + Hospitals website, and you could sign up and try to find an appointment, but there were no appointments,” says Paneth. He was making an appointment on Friday, he says, when the website crashed. “I went back on and the restaurant workers option was gone.”
Meanwhile, some cooks and servers have expressed hesitancy about getting the vaccine, saying they’re concerned about side effects and want to see how it affects others. One cook says that she is not interested in getting it, though declined to elaborate. Managers and business owners all say they have at least a couple members of their staff who have expressed reluctance. (In rolling out the vaccine, the government has also had to contend with mistrust in Black and Hispanic communities because of mistreatment and historical injustices. )
Omar Canales, of Seis Vecinos in the Bronx, says that most of the restaurant’s employees as well as his family were “very skeptical” when he got vaccinated about a month ago. (He was able to make an appointment in early January when New York was struggling to actually use its vaccine doses.) “They were not initially trusting the vaccine,” he says, and the complicated appointment process was also discouraging, he adds. “I feel like that was the resistance that I faced not just at the restaurant, but everywhere that I went. Like, Oh no, you shouldn’t have gotten vaccinated, it’s poisonous. But now everyone is like, Okay, I guess it’s not so bad.”
Since Canales got vaccinated, the restaurant’s employees have become more receptive, and he’s had follow-up conversations to help them schedule appointments. “If getting the vaccine means immunity and also being a day closer to a day where we won’t have to comply with a longer list of very strict rules,” he says, “then sure, so be it.”
The vaccine, however, won’t mean things go back to normal. Vaccination is just one part of part of curbing the pandemic, and experts have asked people to continue wearing masks after getting their shots. And while restaurant workers are now eligible, concerns about indoor dining haven’t abated. Cuomo cited declining positivity rates as the reason for bringing back indoor dining, but ProPublica countered in a recent article, “Epidemiologists and public health experts say a crucial factor is missing from these calculations: the threat of new viral variants.”
Those who have been able to get vaccinated tell Grub it’s like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders, after nearly 11 months of feeling like every day at work raised the possibility that they were going to get sick or get someone else sick. Servers and cooks have started posting “I Got Vaccinated” photos to Instagram, like the pandemic version of the voter selfie. King co-owner Annie Shi got her first shot last week — describing herself as “surprised and grateful” — and members of her staff have been able to get vaccinated as well. “Generally,” she says of the mood at the restaurant, “it’s been a lot of tears.”