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Colorado restaurant workers are eager to get the COVID vaccine – but they’re still waiting for their turn

When Grace Kane walks into Denver’s Safta for her shift as a server, there’s tension in the air. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine would go a long way to relieve the stress and anxiety of working in the service industry during the pandemic.

For one, it’d be easier for her to do her job as she used to.

“It’s been more difficult than normal to be excited and generate these celebratory experiences for most people knowing that I could potentially be passing a disease to someone that I don’t even know,” she said. “It’ll bring me a sense of relief.”

At the end of January, Gov. Jared Polis expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility and broke Phase 1B into three subcategories. Restaurant workers were added to Phase 1B.3 alongside grocery store workers, faith leaders, transit workers and people age 16 to 64 who have two or more high-risk conditions.

“I was super excited, first of all,” Kane said. “Beyond that, I felt that it was appropriate. I’m part of a group of people that has been required to work during periods of time in this pandemic where I know that I have not felt the most comfortable being in a restaurant.”

The excitement about the vaccine for service workers is even more palpable now that many, if not most, of the state’s counties have moved to a less restrictive level on the state’s color-coded dial. Restaurants are allowed to have bigger crowds now – capped at 50% or 150 people, whichever is fewer. Restaurants will also be allowed to stay open later.

“In order for people to feel safe going back into restaurants and employees feeling safe and actually being safe, having the vaccination a priority is going to be key to helping this industry recover,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “About 50% of restaurants have said to us at this time they’re considering, within six months if things don’t dramatically change, they’re considering closing permanently.”

Before the pandemic, restaurant workers made up about 10% of Colorado’s workforce. Surveys from the Colorado Restaurant Association show about a 40% decrease in staffing levels, the association equates that to about 94,000 workers who have lost their jobs.

It’s not yet clear when restaurant workers will be vaccinated.

As of Monday, teachers and 65-to 69-year-olds are eligible for vaccinations. The state said the timing for the next phase depends on vaccine quantities for which it does not have estimates yet, but they should know by mid-February. As for how restaurant workers will identify themselves, the state said it will rely on the honor system.

“If we found proof of widespread disregard of the prioritization, we would consider ceasing future supply to those providers,” wrote a spokesperson for the Colorado Joint Information Center in an email. “That being said, we expect that some Coloradans will receive access outside of the prioritization in order to prevent waste of any doses and that is absolutely appropriate – an arm is better than no arm.”

In the meantime, Kane wishes some patrons would cut service workers some slack. She and her colleagues don’t enjoy having to ask people to keep their masks on or to follow other social distancing guidelines.

“I always just wish that people had a little bit more empathy, recognizing that as a patron of a restaurant you’re going there willingly,” she said, “whereas all of us it’s been a difficult decision basically choosing between unemployment and going into a restaurant where there are a lot of things that are out of our control.”

For more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit cpr.org.