As Texas prepares to open COVID-19 vaccine centers to anyone ages 16 and older on Monday, March 29, some Austin restaurant workers are questioning why they weren’t given priority in the first place. While many essential workers and individuals with preexisting conditions were given days or weeks of priority access to shots, Texas’s service industry workforce — which is more vulnerable to COVID now that restrictions have been lifted — are facing the prospect of having to joust with the general public for a limited number of shots.
Broadly speaking, opening up the vaccine eligibility to adults ages 16 and older (the currently approved vaccines aren’t available for children and young teens) is good for the general public: In theory, the larger the percentage of the population that’s vaccinated, the less the virus is likely to spread and the lower the number of severe infections resulting in hospitalization. Yet, some food service workers feel like they’re being left, once again, to fend for themselves as Texas allows for an unmasked reopening that doesn’t consider their health or safety. After all, during the pandemic, food and beverage workers have been put at higher-risk for COVID-19 because the nature of their jobs requires interacting with unmasked people eating and drinking while also having to enforce rules meant for their safety.
Service industry advocates aren’t quibbling with the rights of others to get vaccinated, but they do believe servers, bartenders, cooks, and other restaurant staff deserved to be prioritized before the reopening of restaurants at 100 percent capacity. “We wholeheartedly believe that opening Texas up so that everyone is eligible to have a vaccine is great at face value,” says Claudia Zapata, a member of the Texas Service Industry Coalition and the Texas chapter of the Restaurant Organizing Project.
“I think it’s super important that everybody gets vaccinated,” says Iliana de la Vega, the chef and co-owner of Austin Mexican restaurant El Naranjo, “especially the people in restaurants. You are working with people that don’t have masks on because they’re eating or they’re talking amongst your guests and such. You’re more vulnerable. They’re also on the front lines.”
This move, however, by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) still leaves Texas service workers in the difficult position of having to compete with the rest of the population for access to doses of vaccines that are still scarce. The announcement didn’t come as a shock to those in the service industry, who knew not to expect a targeted effort for their specific industry at all. “We weren’t surprised that we weren’t prioritized before this, because we haven’t really been prioritized in anything before,” says Crystal Maher, who is also a member of Texas Service Industry Coalition and the Restaurant Organizing Project in Texas, as well as a staffer at Detroit-style pizzeria Via 313. “This just feels like another PR stunt,” she adds. “Like: ‘Oh, people were upset that we didn’t get everyone vaccine access […] So let’s just tell everyone they’re eligible, so they stop calling us about it.’”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler seems to agree that the state rushed into the general public stage too quickly: “I wish that our next move had been to focus on essential workers and people that are really at the crossroads of passing this infection on to others,” he said during a city council meeting that was held at the same time as DSHS’s announcement. “Because I think another couple of weeks of just targeting that universe would have been a wiser public health choice.”
Zapata sees state lawmakers’ decisions regarding service workers as “inherent classism.” She says: “There were obviously some issues regarding how you prioritize or described what was a frontline worker.” To her, Republican officials in the state don’t think much of service workers: “They have this idea: ‘Oh, you know, they’re just lazy, young, don’t have an education.’ [But it] is extremely hard work, and it deserves to be respected.’ And so it was a shame that we weren’t heard out from the very get-go.”
Booking appointments in Texas isn’t easy. There is no central source of information or list of providers; rather vaccine distribution is managed by a bunch of disconnected government agencies, H-E-B, and national pharmacy chains that offer appointments. Each provider has its own booking system to learn and navigate. It requires a lot of time and internet savvy to navigate booking an appointment from joining loosely organized Slack channels to following Twitter bots to WhatsApp group text alerts to Facebook groups with volunteer schedulers.
And these challenges apply doubly to service workers who tend to work longer shifts or overnight hours. “Who has the time to sit there and refresh, refresh, refresh pages?” asks Maher, pointing out that there are workplaces that might penalize employees for being on their phones during shifts. She shared that she only got her appointment because she’s on a WhatsApp group text where someone shared a link that she happened to see right then; she used the link to join the Texas Vaccine Update Slack and, from there located a secret channel where someone helped her book her appointment. Not everyone would have the skills, let alone the time, to monitor those channels.
Iliana de la Vega managed to get her entire staff at El Naranjo vaccinated by chance in early March. A friend, who has been booking vaccination appointments for people on her own time, contacted the chef to see if she needed one. She didn’t — she and her husband and the restaurant’s co-owner Ernesto Torrealba were already vaccinated because they qualified in the Phase 1 group — but she asked if she could get vaccines for her restaurant staff instead. The answer was yes.
Immediately, de la Vega reached out to each staffer and collected the names of people who hadn’t been vaccinated but wanted their shot. She shares that two staffers were initially hesitant about it, so she had to convince them otherwise: “‘No, this is like winning the lottery. So if you get it, do it, don’t think about it,’” she told them. “Most of them were really happy about it.”
The next day, de la Vega’s staff — including kitchen employees and servers — received their first doses. Their second dose appointments are scheduled for Thursday, April 15; the restaurant will close on Friday, April 16, the day after they get their second dose, so employees can rest and recover from any immune responses.
Another major issue is the glaring racial discrepancies between which groups are actually being vaccinated in Texas. Zapata sees a concerted effort to vaccinate service workers as a major step towards closing that gap. She points to the demographics of Austin-area service workers: “A lot of the folks who work in the back-of-the-house are majority Latinos who live in these low-income ZIP codes in Texas, and especially here in Central Texas and Austin,” she says. “And we have been vaccinated at way lower percentages than our white counterpart ZIP codes, or anything west of I-35,” Zapata notes that many service industry workers tend to live in Manor, southeast Austin, Pleasant Valley, Del Valle, and Hornsby Bend, among other neighborhoods, where vaccination rates are lower.
Texas Tribune dug into the state’s statistics on the demographics of vaccinations, and found that “white Texans are being vaccinated at nearly twice the rate of Hispanic Texans and more than six times the rate of Black Texans.” At the same time, those groups are at higher risk for COVID-19 compared to whites.
“The eastern ZIP codes have the highest mortality rates from COVID,” Zapata says. “And we have the highest infection rates. And no one seems to care, except for us. We have to do it, we have to protect our communities.”
Zapata is also the treasurer of the Del Valle Community Coalition, and recounts how it has been difficult to get Austin Public Health and Travis County to pay attention to the community even before COVID-19 became the U.S.’s most pressing issue. “We’ve been begging: ‘Hey, there was this equity report that was done by the city. It obviously is showing that disaster relief components are failing in the eastern part of Travis County. This needs to be addressed.’ But they just continue to neglect it.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” Zapata says, noting that Austin and Travis County officials tend to tout their “extraordinarily progressive” policies and high vaccination rates, without addressing that the percentages of those who’ve been vaccinated are disproportionately white. “What about the rest of us?” she asks. “It’s been a fight.”
Service industry groups are also on the front lines of fighting misinformation and fear regarding the vaccine, especially for undocumented and/or non-English-speaking workers. Maher recounted that someone in her group talked to a gardener in their East Austin neighborhood who thought the vaccine cost $750, when, in fact, it’s free.
Groups like the Restaurant Organizing Project are now taking things into their own hands, by planning to create multilingual pamphlets explaining how people can book vaccines. Maher says they’ve begun distributing them to every restaurant and going from ”taqueria truck to taqueria truck on Riverside Drive.” It’s about “educating people and trying to really do the job that the city and county and state aren’t doing.”
Zapata still hopes that Texas will get it together and begin to provide cohesive, comprehensive, and clear guidance on how service workers can get the vaccine. That way, the state could properly ensure that “even among our service industry — the vulnerable population — are able to access these vaccines.”
Maher still thinks of this opening the eligibility to everyone as a victory, pointing to the rally she and others held earlier this month demanding vaccinations for service workers since the state was lifting all safety measures. “It shows that when you organize, you can make a change,” she says. “Restaurant workers don’t think that their voice matters, but clearly, in this case, their voices matter. And they need to see that as their victory to like this.”