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As Vermont loosens restrictions on bars and restaurants, workers feel at risk

  • Rose Kenary, a server at Citizen Cider in Burlington, seen on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Published: 3/25/2021 9:25:02 PM
Modified: 3/25/2021 9:27:39 PM

Between January and March, food service workers in Vermont had the highest rate of COVID-19 infection of any occupation in the state.

That’s according to a VtDigger analysis of case data provided by the Agency of Human Services.

But for Rose Kenary, a server with 10 years of experience who’s now working at Citizen Cider in Burlington, the numbers don’t come as much of a surprise.

“When people come to my restaurant, it’s like there are no rules,” she said.

In January, the state began tracking the occupations of Vermonters who tested positive for COVID-19. The data from more than 2,100 cases suggests that the state’s low-wage workers have been at high risk during the latest stage of the pandemic.

Occupations whose average annual wage is more than $50,000 a year had a COVID-19 infection rate of 5.7 per 1,000 workers. For occupations less than $50,000 a year, the rate was 7.3.

As Vermont’s vaccination effort ramps up, state officials have begun relaxing restrictions on gatherings, including in the hospitality sector. But restaurant and bar workers have not been prioritized for immunization, and most workers in the industry are still weeks — if not a month or two — away from getting a shot.

The state has already given at least one dose of the vaccine to the vast majority of Vermonters age 65 or older, a slice of the population that accounts for about 90% of all of Vermont’s COVID-19 fatalities. And with the most vulnerable quickly becoming immunized, officials are loosening the reins on mitigation efforts and telegraphing that more moves to reopen the economy will come soon.

But some warn Vermont could be moving prematurely. Anne Sosin, a fellow at Dartmouth’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, has frequently argued that Vermont has erred in not prioritizing essential workers. To expose food-service workers to more risk now, she said, ignores that a significant share of people who contract the disease will experience long-term symptoms.

“There’s this emerging discourse in the state of Vermont that death is the only outcome of concern,” she said. “That’s simply not true, given the mounting evidence on risk of chronic disease.”

Sosin said she’s not in favor of an “endless” lockdown, and Vermont likely needs to be patient only a little while longer.

“What we’re talking about is another probably six to eight weeks before we can really start to relax the restrictions that are in place,” she said.

Andrew Azman, an assistant scientist in the department of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, warned against over-interpreting occupational case data in Vermont, given small sample sizes.

Research on the food-service sector is “mixed,” in that these workers, in general, are at much higher risk than other people, he said, although bars do stand out as particularly risky, and have often been the source of super-spreading events.

Why ease up now?

Still, Vermont is on the cusp of achieving wide-scale vaccination, Azman said. If those most likely to be exposed to the virus aren’t prioritized, he agreed with Sosin it might make sense for the state to hold off just a little while longer before relaxing mitigation measures.

“Vermont’s doing wonderfully in terms of vaccinating people and has done quite well during the pandemic,” he said. “And to kind of risk that when we’re really close to hopefully some longer-term immunity in the population seems shortsighted.”

Administration officials insist they are being careful. Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, said the steps taken in the last few weeks still leave the food-service industry operating under stricter restrictions than they were in October.

And he said Vermont “continues to take among the most cautious approaches in the country, even while states like Connecticut have fully opened restaurant capacity.”

But until late fall, daily case counts in Vermont were a fraction of what they are now. And Sosin argues that, given the pandemic’s spread across the U.S., what Vermont’s peers may be doing should not serve as a baseline.

“Better than Texas, better than, you know, Mississippi is not ‘good.’ Right?” she said. “I think we just have to disrupt the narrative that lots of cases are fine, if, you know, they are happening in younger and healthier people.”

And while the state is indeed imposing restrictions on bars and restaurants, including distancing requirements and capacity limits, workers in the industry often say some of the rules are difficult to enforce in practice.

‘I want you to care about me’

At Citizen Cider, customers are asked to wear masks when a server takes their order or when they go to the bathroom. Kenary said maybe 1 in 10 actually do this.

Being a server has always had its tough moments, but now more than ever, according to Kenary, she feels as if she’s invisible to her customers.

“I am a person, too,” she said. “I care about you, and I want you to care about me.”

In Montpelier, Three Penny Taproom general manager Jay Bothwell said the restaurant has little choice but to take patrons with out-of-state area codes at their word when they say they’ve adhered to Vermont’s travel restrictions. Still, Bothwell said, Three Penny is comfortable with the pace the state is setting for reopening.

“We’re excited to be able to seat people in person and to have interpersonal communication with customers that we haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “But it’s all with this caveat that we’re still not over the hump.”

Jack Gish, a chef at American Flatbread in Middlebury, said he appreciates the way his managers have handled the pandemic — but he believes that restaurants are still very risky places to work.

“While this may be our passion, we never had it in our mind that this would be something we would have to deal with,” he said.

Gish said he’s heard people outside of the industry say that restaurant workers “choose to continue working.” But, he said, it’s not a choice for most: “There’s unemployment stimulus, you know; that doesn’t mean that the bills go away.

“I think to sort of rely on front-line workers — these groups of working people who are traditionally overworked and underpaid — to keep the economy afloat and to keep things moving, but then have no real talk of a priority for vaccination, is just not right,” he said.

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