Dining Rooms Shouldn’t Reopen Until Restaurant Workers Are Eligible for the Vaccine

This is what is really annoying me about the vaccine phase roll outs.  And not just restaurant workers being shut out.  What about supermarket workers who we called heroes back in the early days of the pandemic yet haven’t put them in a higher priority phase.

As of today, March 1, restaurants in Massachusetts are fully open. There are still guidelines that must be followed — masks must be worn, tables must be spaced at least six feet apart, parties must not exceed six diners, and so on — but for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, restaurants are free to jam as many people into their dining rooms as the state’s social distancing guidelines will permit.

It’s the third significant restriction Gov. Charlie Baker has lifted for restaurants in the state in the past five weeks. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this day, which signals a return to some version of normalcy for many. The news would be exciting if it weren’t so monumentally reckless.

Baker, who lifted the state’s stay-at-home advisory and early business closure order that required restaurants to close by 9:30 p.m. in late January, and increased dining room capacities from 25 to 40 percent in early February, attributed the accelerated reopening to encouraging trends in public health data. While it’s true that there’s been a steady decline in COVID-19 cases — the state hasn’t reported more than 2,000 new cases on a single day since February 12 after routinely topping 5,000 new cases per day in December and January — Massachusetts is still just weeks removed from the pandemic’s peak, when its healthcare infrastructure was stretched to its outer limits for a second time in under a year.

Meanwhile, the state’s vaccine program is underway, but the rollout has been fraught at best, and does not currently include restaurant workers, who face a heightened risk for COVID-19 infection, especially with the emergence of new virus variants. Food service workers — including meatpackers, delivery drivers, and grocery workers — have exposed themselves to the risks of COVID-19 for a year because the state classified their work as essential last March, when the pandemic first broke out. Yet they must sit around and hit refresh on the state’s website to figure out when they’ll be eligible for the vaccine. To open dining rooms without capacity limits so soon after emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic, without having made them eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine — and without indicating exactly when they might become eligible — is unconscionable.