The next group of Washington residents eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines starting March 22 includes “high-risk essential workers groups” such as grocery-store personnel, child-care workers and corrections staff — but not, glaringly, restaurant workers.

The guidelines for vaccine prioritization indicate that the next group, Phase 1B-2, is meant to encompass those working at “significantly high risk of exposure and transmission” in settings “in an enclosed space where they are interacting with a high volume of people (i.e., supermarket) over extended time and not able to consistently social distance (i.e., be more than 6 feet apart).”

With indoor dining currently allowed at 25% capacity, restaurant staffers are one of few classes of Washington’s workers that are regularly exposed to the unmasked public at close range. Their omission from the next group to be vaccinated was met with disbelief on social media from many in the restaurant industry. Reached for comment, the following chef-owners share their views:

Renee Erickson is a James Beard award winning chef, author and co-owner of multiple restaurants and coffee locations. (Courtesy of Renee Erickson  )

Renee Erickson of Sea Creatures restaurants: “Real terrible to be ‘essential’ for a year and then removed from the vaccine list and clearly being not ‘essential.’ Also the fact that we are allowed to be open inside … not to mention the fact that our guests take off their masks to eat, making it an even more risky situation. We have been fighting to stay open for a year, being diligent about safety for both our guests and our teams. [Vaccination as soon as possible] would create the opportunity for our employees to work in a much safer environment. We also hope that when our employees are vaccinated, more people will feel comfortable coming out to dine out with us, giving restaurants a much-needed boost to survive.”

Chef Kristi Brown outside her  restaurant, Communion in the Central District  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times, 2020)

Kristi Brown of Communion: “I’m super-irritated about it. It’s ridiculous that we keep getting pushed to the back when we are the first ones … when they’re talking about industries that are in jeopardy. It’s ridiculous.”

Brandon Pettit, with Dino’s Tomato Pie  

  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times, 2016)

Brandon Pettit of Delancey and Dino’s Tomato Pie: “I’m hoping it’s a mistake? Federal emergency guidelines link food service and grocery together. And if anything, food-service workers are at greater risk than grocery workers, dealing with 100 people with no mask!”

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Trey Lamont of Jerk Shack  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Trey Lamont of Jerk Shack: “That sucks, because all restaurant workers are in close proximity to each other, either in the kitchen or front of house, and we’re also serving people food. What do they expect? … If they really look at how the economy is set up, restaurants need to be full service — we still have to pay 100% percent of our bills … I would like for us to be put on the list, [then] restaurants that choose to do it can boast, just like a grade from the health department saying that they’re excellent. It would encourage other restaurants that are open to get on board with that. If they’re truly trying to encourage people to get vaccinated, and they’re looking at the disparity of the Black and brown community and the distrust that may be there, they would put restaurants on the list because Black and brown people work in the service industry more than any other race. That would be a huge win in getting people of color vaccinated.”

Monica Dimas of Westman’s Bagel and Coffee and Little Neon Taco (the latter now a pop-up inside La Dive): “With every other essential worker that’s listed — agricultural, food processing — [I thought] of course, restaurant workers would be on there! It felt like an already marginalized industry is even more marginalized, not being listed but then being required to go to work while unemployment is running out. It just feels very strange … It’s not an industry where you can work from home! It’s crazy to say these are essential workers, but not essential enough.”

In a news release, Gov. Jay Inslee says that the prioritization process is “focused on helping those who are most at-risk first.” Governor’s office spokesperson Mike Faulk elaborates, “These are hard decisions being made with a limited supply … Restaurant workers are important, but the health and policy experts determined these current prioritizations will be the most effective strategy to limit transmission, hospitalizations and deaths as the plan continues to be rolled out and supply increases.”

Faulk says, “It is yet to be determined where [restaurant workers] will fall in the prioritizations.”