Uncertainty remains for restaurant workers wanting vaccine

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., (WOOD) — After a surprise announcement on COVID-19 vaccine eligibility, restaurants workers say they’re still unclear on which phase of the rollout they fall in.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made the announcement Wednesday during an event in the Detroit area. She said starting March 8, people over the age of 50 with preexisting conditions or disabilities can get vaccinated. People who care for children with special health care needs will also be able to get vaccinated.

Michigan restaurant workers, who are preparing to up their capacity limits to 50% this weekend, say they’re still waiting to learn when it will be their turn.

“We interact with people obviously, and some of the restaurants are smaller, so it’s very hard to keep the social distancing,” said chef Oscar Moreno at MeXo in downtown Grand Rapids.

Moreno says like many restaurants, sanitation has always been a large part of their routine. He says his staff still added additional safety measures at the beginning of the pandemic. Moreno says a vaccine can give workers added protection.

“We’re waiting patiently and taking all the measurements that are in our hands,” Moreno said.

The state is currently in Phase 1B, which includes agriculture and food processing workers and “other essential front-line workers.” There’s also a space carved out in the next phase, 1C, for “remaining essential workers.”

Though labeled essential at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, there’s no explicit guidance for those who work in restaurants.

A representative for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says they’re following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for prioritization of vaccine distribution for adults.

“CDC recommendations are based on input from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. CDC and ACIP have defined populations for different vaccination phases. Michigan has prioritized vaccine allocation within CDC’s Phases, with an emphasis on both protecting people at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness and ensuring the continuing functioning of the health care system and essential services in the community,” MDHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton said in an email to News 8. “These prioritizations may change as more information on vaccine effectiveness and additional vaccination products become available.”

Wheaton went on to say MDHHS will consider prioritizing workers in locations with high rates of transmission or outbreaks, and workers who are at increased risk of severe illness. They say those changes would be dependent on information from the ACIP.

Wheaton says in the meantime, restaurant workers wearing a mask and washing their hands often while working will help protect them from the virus.

Jeff Lobdell, who owns Rockwell Republic and several other restaurants in Grand Rapids, says he wants his staff to be considered 1B like other essential workers.

“I’m very surprised that we have not been classified that way as many states around us have been,” Lobdell said.

He says the vaccines would not only protect workers, but ease concerns of customers.

“It’s important to us that we regain trust in our industry, in hospitality. We think restaurants are some of the cleanest, safest places in the community, but having the public know that our workers are vaccinated will gain even more trust,” Lobdell said. “I think this state government really needs to advocate more for the hospitality industry. Let’s get back to our great tourism state with a Pure Michigan campaign and get these great hospitality industries back to 100% in the very near future.”

Restaurant owners say while they wait for word on when it’s their turn, they will continue with the measures they already have in place: screening customers, social distancing, wearing masks and heightened sanitization.