3:00pm: Hotline with Dave Weekley

Service workers ask Justice for vaccine priority as COVID restrictions loosen at restaurants, bars

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As COVID-19 restrictions for restaurants and bars have been loosened in the past week by Gov. Jim Justice, a handful of service workers stood outside the state Capitol on Monday to express the need for priority on the vaccination list.

Organized by Huntington area server and bartender Megan Osborne, the group said that if restaurants are allowed to open up to 75% capacity now, workers need to have priority for the vaccine. Food service workers, grocery store workers and other groups of public-facing workers are not included in Phase 1 of the state’s vaccine allocation plan but in Phase 2 with the general public.

“We are one of the most at-risk classes of people as we are least likely to have health insurance. Servers and bartenders have to deal with people without their masks all the time,” Osborne said.

Osborne said the group demands a timeline for vaccination and all service industry regulation changes should be paused until workers get a chance to be vaccinated.

Osborne stands with her sign on Monday.

Phase 2 is slated to be anywhere begin next month until October, based on a timeline given Monday during a coronavirus briefing by James Hoyer, West Virginia Inter-Agency Task Force for Vaccines Director. Hoyer said the general public vaccination timeline of March to October is based on the availability of federal vaccination supplies.

“If things continue to progress with federal supply increases, we will be able to do more people more quickly. We are prepared and could on a weekly basis, do 135,000 vaccines easily.”

Phase 1 of the vaccine distribution, which has been underway since December, includes workers in hospitals, long-term care, pharmacy, community infrastructure, emergency response, public health officials, first responders, teachers and education, and other sectors to state, continuity of government.

Justice has stated that Phase 2 will begin with an emphasis on ‘our most vulnerable population based on guidance from the CDC.’ Restaurant workers all over the country have been advocating for essential classification.

Restaurants had been allowed to operate at 50% capacity since last May until Justice changed the restrictions to 75%. Included in the order on Friday is bars may only increase capacity to the extent that they have seating for every patron — no standing room only.

Osborne said it’s been a long, draining year for workers in the service industry. She said she and others know co-workers who have gotten sick from the virus because of work.

“I can speak for all of us when we say we are exhausted. We are all understaffed, everybody had staffing cut,” she said.

“We are not getting as many hours because we are not getting as many customers, meaning we are not making as much money. We are exhausted financially, mentally and physically from the extra work we have to do.”

She said her group will continue to stand up until a vaccine is distributed to service workers in a timely manner.

“I just want to let people know that someone is speaking for them because I know we feel largely ignored. We are a population of people that no one pays attention to until their food comes out wrong or they can’t get something they want,” Osborne said.

As of Monday’s report by the state Department of Health and Human Resources, 269,670 first doses of a vaccine have been administered and 166, 272 people have been fully vaccinated. Of the 435,942 total doses administered, 290,166 are those 55 years or older.

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