Server Mack Ordaya Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt announced today that restaurant, bar, and coffee shop workers are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in D.C. They can register on the city’s new vaccine portal. Previously, only grocery store workers were the only food sector workers who could book appointments for the vaccine. Some local restaurant and bar employees found this frustrating.

“I don’t understand why grocery store workers are eligible, but not restaurant workers,” server and bartender Caitlin Schiavoni said before the city extended vaccine eligibility this afternoon. “People wear masks in grocery stores all the time, yet take them off for long periods of time to dine and drink. I’m glad people are eligible now, but wish they had been sooner with the first wave of workers.”

According to a New York Times report, only about a third of the 50 states—at least 17—have allowed some restaurant workers to get shots, though some workers are only eligible in certain counties. Twenty-six states, by comparison, have been vaccinating grocery workers.

Some restaurant and bar employees fell into other eligible categories based on their age or medical conditions. City Paper caught up with another local server and bartender, Mack Ordaya, while he was en route to get his second dose this morning. Both of his parents had COVID-19. The virus killed his father.

Ordaya’s anxiety was at an all-time high working at restaurants prior to receiving his first dose. He’s been taking medication to prevent panic attacks. “It’s scary to work in an environment where we are around people eating and shouting all around us,” he says. “I am happy to get my second shot and take that weight off my shoulder!”

Also at today’s press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the 10 p.m. cut off time for alcohol sales would be extended to midnight starting on March 22. Some thought she would expand the indoor dining capacity limit from 25 to 50 percent, but the city is taking more time before expanding capacity, unlike some jurisdictions that moved forward before restaurant workers could get vaccinated.

Bowser says her administration will reassess capacity limits, as well as whether venues can start offering live music performances, in early April. Cash-strapped restaurants emerging from the worst year on record are eager to welcome more patrons and hire back employees.

“We can’t go back to normal because this virus is still circulating in our city, people are still getting sick and going to the hospital, and people are still dying,” Bowser said at the press conference. “We need to be focused on how we are practicing good social distancing, mask wearing, and limiting our activities and getting vaccinated. But, there are more and more things that we can do today and there will be even more things that we can do as spring evolves as we get later in the calendar assuming that our numbers continue to go down.”

Three of the city’s COVID-19 metrics were squarely in the red this morning. The District’s daily case rate based on a 7-day average (22.2 percent), mean test turnaround time (4.6 days), and positive cases interviewed (69.6 percent) only meet the standard of phase zero or phase one of reopening, when indoor dining isn’t permitted at all. The city says there was backlog in tests last week that is skewing some of the numbers.

Ordaya encourages his colleagues to keep up with their COVID-19 safety protocols even as more workers and customers get the vaccine. “[Police] people to make sure their masks are on correctly and that they have access to sanitizer,” he says. “While we are waiting for everyone to get vaccinated, we need to make sure we stick with the rules! No more than six people at a table spaced six feet apart. We appreciate all the people who have ventured out and supported our restaurants and wearing masks to protect each other.”

Patrons are still required by the city to wear face coverings whenever they’re not actively eating or drinking on site at restaurants and bars. This COVID-19 restriction hasn’t changed, despite the fact that an increasing percentage of the population has received the vaccine. 

New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says while fully vaccinated people can more safely spend time in places where strangers abound—like restaurant dining rooms and gyms—they should continue to take precautions such as wearing well-fitted face masks and practicing social distancing. 

Mask compliance at businesses is a rule the city takes seriously. Of the 231 known warnings and citations the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration has handed out to liquor license holders since the District entered Phase Two of reopening in June, 25 percent of violations mention patrons or employees failing to wear face coverings. The most recent such citation came as recently as March 5 at Petworth Cigars

Continuing to adhere to the mask mandate prevents servers, bartenders, and managers from having to play the uncomfortable role of enforcer. Restaurant employees have clashed with patrons over mask policies for nearly a year now. One local group even held courses on deescalating potentially dangerous situations. Remember to mask up before your first bite or sip arrives, whenever employees approach the table, and when moving about the establishment to use the restroom. 

“I hope everyone gets the shot as soon as possible,” Schiavoni says. “It’s going to be a great feeling know staff is safe.”

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