The day after this post was first published, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York’s restaurant workers will be made eligible for vaccination, if local health departments deem it feasible.
In 13 days, New York City restaurants will be able to reopen for indoor dining. Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement on Friday during a press conference when he also, somewhat oddly, suggested that diners use the occasion to make wedding proposals, but he did not say anything about the basic welfare of the people who work in restaurants. In fact, as of today, New York City restaurant and bar workers still don’t know when they’ll get vaccinated. The CDC classifies them as “other essential workers,” so presuming the state follows that guidance, they’re eligible for vaccination during phase 1c of the rollout — putting restaurant workers in an uncomfortable limbo in which they’ll be forced to further endanger themselves and their families, without any indication that New York will protect them from the virus that has, as of this morning, killed more than 400,000 Americans.
Throughout the pandemic, food-industry workers have been hailed as “essential workers,” but many feel they’re treated as though they’re disposable. Servers have complained about “performative safety measures” — temperature checks, contact tracing — that do little to limit the spread of COVID-19 but offer customers a feeling of protection. Now, the lack of certainty about vaccination is only compounding existing frustrations and anxieties that have built up over the past year and are now boiling over.
In early January, Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly asked the governor to expand the group of essential workers eligible for vaccination to include delivery workers and bodega and deli employees, but that has yet to do any good. Cuomo has also flip-flopped numerous times over how and when New York City’s restaurants should reopen, adding to the confusion.
Granted situations can change quickly, and, right now, cases in the state have been trending downward, but, the New York Times noted, as of Friday, more than 30 Zip Codes had seven-day average positivity rates higher than 10 percent. And newer variants of the virus are, we’ve all been told numerous times, much more contagious.
If you’re a cook and you test positive, even if you’re asymptomatic, what are you supposed to do? Restaurants didn’t offer paid time off even when the industry wasn’t in free fall, and cooks will tell you they can’t afford to get sick. Health insurance is far from a given in the industry, while many workers have been making much less money (if they have an income) and have exhausted what savings they have.
Some owners understand that the danger posed to their employees may outweigh the bottom line. On Friday, Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen tweeted that she has no plans to “serve indoors until all of our employees are vaccinated.” But after almost a year of no traditional restaurant business, other owners are moving ahead: A Queens restaurateur who scraped through last year tells me that he will reopen for indoor dining “right away.” This is not a place with investors but a small family-run, immigrant-owned business. Ravi DeRossi’s Overthrow Hospitality sent out an email blast for a “one of a kind Valentine’s Day,” announcing the restaurants would reopen for the day.
Meanwhile, rumors and stories continue to persist in the industry about restaurant owners stifling news about positive cases or who act recklessly around staff — who then feel stuck. As one server expressed to me a month ago, what are you supposed to do when there are no other jobs? And what can a worker do about callous customers who show up for dinner without taking proper safety precautions?
Even at 25 percent capacity and with a 10 p.m. curfew, dining rooms can fill with dozens of customers during any given shift, forcing staffers into hundreds of close interactions over the course of eight hours. It is simply cruel to tell these same people that they are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine that could keep them safe and to keep them guessing about when that might even be a possibility.
Maybe phase 1c of New York’s vaccine rollout will start in March or April, or maybe it won’t. The country’s vaccination strategy has been a disaster, and New York’s, specifically, has been filled with delays, shortages, and mismanagement. Nine high-ranking officials in the state Department of Health have resigned as a result of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic, the New York Times reports. Here in New York City, 742,025 total doses were administered as of Friday, short of Mayor de Blasio’s goal of 1 million doses by February.
Vaccination distribution has also played out along exactly the same fault lines of inequality as the pandemic: Gothamist reported on Sunday that three white residents have gotten a vaccine for every one Black or Latino resident. Yet many restaurant workers are people of color; others are undocumented immigrants who may live in overcrowded, illegally converted apartments. In the spring last year, when the coronavirus was tearing through New York, it hit the food industry like a wrecking ball, and, in particular, the more vulnerable employees — namely, Latinos. Nearly every person I have spoken to in the hospitality industry tells me they know at least one person who has died from the virus, and some many more.
If New York bars and restaurants are going to reopen for indoor dining, then the people who work in them should be eligible for vaccination. It’s that simple. We are not waiting to reopen dining rooms, and we cannot wait any longer to keep the people who work in those dining rooms safe.