San Francisco Chronicle

Concerns about safety remain as restaurant workers get shots

- By Janelle Bitker

As indoor dining begins opening up around the Bay Area, restaurant workers are just starting to get vaccinated. Generally, they are exhaling — and sometimes crying — with relief.

Kristina Costa, a pastry chef at San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery, got her first shot last week and started sobbing as her car pulled into the waiting area. Mary Denham, owner of Marin County bakery popup Blooms End, described the feeling as “magic.”

“I didn’t realize how much I was in despair until I got the appointmen­t,” Denham said. “This is what relief feels like. This is what happiness is.”

The Chronicle interviewe­d 15 Bay Area restaurant workers who said they’ll feel more pro

tected and safe going into work once they’re fully vaccinated. Cooks and other backofhous­e employees detailed tight working conditions where it’s nearly impossible to stay 6 feet apart from colleagues, even if everyone is masked and trying to socially distance. Servers, meanwhile, are among the only profession­als who have to regularly interact with maskless people.

Still, there’s no easy return to normalcy. Workers and owners agree that masks will be part of the restaurant uniform for many months to come since it’s unknown whether vaccinated people can still spread the coronaviru­s. With many restaurant workers living with unvaccinat­ed family members and friends, they still want to be cautious at work — and some are worried diners will become even more relaxed about masking as vaccines become common.

The return of indoor dining in parts of the Bay Area feels rushed to many workers who would rather be fully vaccinated first. While some workers, especially those in Alameda County, have already secured their first shots, others are still scrambling for appointmen­ts.

“It’s an equity issue,” said Adrian Lopez, a server at Rintaro and coowner of Grand Coffee in San Francisco. “Who has been on the front lines making people’s dinners for months and getting sick doing it because they’re still in cramped quarters? And who is itching to have a regular meal?”

Meanwhile, some restaurant workers, particular­ly in the Black and Latino communitie­s, aren’t sure if they want the vaccine yet. Public health data shows they have the lowest vaccinatio­n rates in the Bay Area — in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Latinos account for 21.9% of the population and 9.9% of distribute­d vaccinatio­ns; Black people make up 9.3% of the population and 5.1% of vaccinatio­ns. That’s leading owners and some local nonprofits like Trabajador­es Unidos Workers United to focus on education by providing articles about the vaccine.

Some smaller spots such as Lion Dance Cafe and Friends and Family in Oakland plan to shut down for a couple of days in March so their employees can get vaccinated without fear of returning to work while feeling chills or other side

“The one thing that will change is this weight on all of our shoulders will be lifted in some way.” Kristina Costa, pastry chef at Tartine Bakery

effects. While one New York restaurant made headlines for allegedly firing a server because she didn’t want to get vaccinated, several Bay Area owners say they don’t plan to require vaccinatio­ns for employees. Employers can require vaccines if they provide exemptions for religious beliefs and disabiliti­es, but it opens up potential legal complicati­ons, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunit­y Commission.

“The fact is that not everyone wants it and people who don’t want it will challenge that as a matter of principle,” said Kyle Connaughto­n, chef and coowner of SingleThre­ad in Healdsburg. “Then you’re dealing with the fallout.”

Solomon Johnson and Mike Woods, owners of Oakland ghost kitchen the Bussdown, initially preferred to wait a

while to get their shots, citing the historic distrust of government and medical care in the Black community. For example, U.S. government officials recruited Black men in the 1930s to take part in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, promising free health care but instead leaving patients untreated for observatio­n.

But potential customers have started asking them to cater events later this year, and they may feel safer if the chefs are vaccinated, Johnson said. For the sake of growing their business and paying the bills, they plan to make appointmen­ts.

In some cases, workers want the vaccine but don’t know how to get it — or they fear retaliatio­n from their bosses if they ask for time off to get the vaccine, said Reyna Noemi Aguilar, a cook at a SoMa restaurant.

“Folks from my community are not showing interest in trying to get vaccinated because they don’t know who to ask and don’t trust our bosses,” she said in Spanish through an interprete­r.

Aguilar said her boss told her she wasn’t eligible for a vaccine; she said she only learned she was eligible from

her coworkers. Aguilar recently signed up through Trabajador­es Unidos Workers United, and she plans to work with the nonprofit to help inform other Latino restaurant workers.

Jon Weeks, a bartender at Anina and barista at Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco, said he’s worried customers will get less diligent about masking, and said, in fact, that he’s already seen that happening. Ever since the vaccine rollout began, he said, diners have used their own vaccinatio­ns as an excuse not to wear a mask. Once he and other workers are fully vaccinated, Weeks is concerned customers won’t follow safety rules, mistakenly assuming it no longer matters.

“Trying to be an outspoken COVID educator for people when I’m on shift feels weird and uncomforta­ble,” he said. “You get nervous in a hospitalit­y context that anything adversaria­l is going to negatively impact your tips.”

Still, for many, there’s hope now.

“The one thing that will change is this weight on all of our shoulders will be lifted in some way,” said Costa of Tartine. “If there is a COVIDposit­ive case, it adds so much

stress to work for the next two weeks — we’re all waiting with bated breath to make sure no one else has tested positive.”

For Denham of Blooms End, being vaccinated means more confidentl­y holding popups to sell pastries at other people’s businesses. During the pandemic, she’s been uncomforta­ble with some other businesses’ less strict safety measures, such as allowing workers to wear bandannas instead of masks or keeping the door closed instead of maximizing ventilatio­n.

For Mike Raskin, owner of Oakland popup Edith’s Pie, knowing many others will also get vaccinated in the coming months means finally searching for brickandmo­rtar spaces for a future pie shop. It felt pointless when he had no clue when customers would feel comfortabl­e sitting down indoors with a slice of chocolate chess pie.

“There’s been no reason to try to do more than is manageable because life is barely manageable,” he said. “This kind of changes what’s possible.”

 ?? Marlena Sloss / Special to The Chronicle ?? Server Adrian Lopez and floor manager Eryn Kimura at Rintaro in San Francisco, where limited indoor dining has resumed.
Marlena Sloss / Special to The Chronicle Server Adrian Lopez and floor manager Eryn Kimura at Rintaro in San Francisco, where limited indoor dining has resumed.

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