Uncertainty builds as restaurants consider COVID vaccine

When it comes to the vaccine rollout, operators have more questions than answers so far.
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

John Taxin, owner of Old Original Bookbinder’s Seafood & Steakhouse in Richmond, Va., sums up the status of restaurants and the coronavirus vaccine as well as anybody:

“Nobody knows what the hell is going on,” Taxin said. “Nobody knows what to do. We’re waiting to hear.”

He is far from alone in adopting that wait-and-see attitude. A new Restaurant Business survey of operators revealed that only 20.4% of restaurant employers intend to require their staffs be vaccinated, with more than half of them indicating they’ll make exceptions for religious or health reasons. An equal percentage say they definitely will not mandate the inoculations.

Among the remaining majority, 19.7% say they’re still hammering out a policy. The remaining 39.4% said they’ll request that every employee get the vaccine but will leave compliance up to each individual.

Among those who don’t intend to require vaccines, the No. 1 reason by far was a belief that “the decision to be vaccinated is a personal one that every staff member should make on their own,” the stance cited by 60%.

The question of whether to vaccinate remains academic at this point. Most states or local jurisdictions have not indicated when they’ll have enough doses of the Pfizer or Moderna injections to begin safeguarding “other” essential workers, the category into which restaurant employees have for the most part been classified. But at least some areas have said restaurant staff members could be asked to roll up their sleeves as early as next month.

Taxin, who has had to close his restaurant twice because of COVID outbreaks among employees, said he doesn’t plan to mandate his 48 workers get vaccinated once shots are available. So far, though, he thinks everyone on his team is on board.

“We’re a community of people who care about each other,” said Taxin, who has owned Bookbinder’s for 20 years. “If the restaurant is closed, nobody is making any money … The goal is to get everybody vaccinated.”

More questions than answers

When it comes to the restaurant industry and the coronavirus vaccine, the only thing certain is uncertainty. When will restaurant workers be able to get the shots? Should employers mandate vaccinations? Is that even legal? Do kitchen workers need the vaccine as much as FOH staff? Should workers get paid time off if they suffer vaccination side effects?

Most experts say it’s simply too early in the process to be able to answer many of these questions.

“It’s complicated,” said Roslyn Stone, COO of Zero Hour Health, a company that helps restaurants manage food safety and health incidents. “We know less than we need to to make really good decisions. We can make good decisions about basic policies, but we can’t make good decisions about operational actions or procedures yet, because there’s so much we don’t know.”

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, employers were permitted to institute mandatory vaccine policies as long as they offered exceptions for those with medical conditions and religious objections.

It is likely those exceptions will remain when it comes to enforcing any sort of mandates around the COVID vaccine, said Elaine Turner, a partner in the regional law firm Hall Estill.

Turner said she is advising her clients to hold off on requiring vaccinations, at least until more is known.

“I think we’re going to have to play this out in time,” she said. “I certainly don’t see the federal government trying to pass something like this at this moment. I suspect you will see some states passing some legislation.”

Can employers mandate vaccinations?

Last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said requiring vaccinations would not violate the privacy provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, clearing the way for restaurants and other businesses to require that workers get the COVID vaccine as a condition of employment. The EEOC said getting a shot does not require any personal revelations from employees and thus is not a privacy violation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month said restaurant workers should be prioritized to get the coronavirus vaccine in the next wave of inoculations, immediately after the elderly and frontline workers have received theirs. The National Restaurant Association had pressed government officials to give foodservice workers priority access to the vaccine.

Midwestern sandwich chain Cousins has said that mandating the COVID vaccine could violate the medical rights of employees.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has said it will not require shots for its workers.

“We are working with the appropriate authorities and partners to ensure voluntary vaccines are available for our essential workers and that we have plans in place for distribution when the time is right,” Chipotle said in a statement to Restaurant Business.

‘Everything is up in limbo’

Aaron Ho, co-owner of eatertainment spot Sour Mouse in New York City, said he intends to “strongly encourage” his staff to get vaccinated.

“There’s almost no reason not to require our staff to get the vaccine,” Ho said. “It’s going to save lives.”

But, he added, there’s uncertainty on where his employees would fit in the vaccination schedule and what recourse he would have, as an employer, if a worker refused to comply.

“Everything is up in limbo right now,” he said.

John Metz Jr., CEO and co-founder of Sterling Culinary Management and several other Atlanta-based concepts, speculated that since his company has a young workforce, they may be farther back in line for vaccinations. He plans to “suggest” that all employees get vaccinated “if they want it or feel comfortable.”

“I’m going to wait and see kind of how it all unfolds,” Metz said. “I don’t want someone to do something they don’t want to do, but I also want to protect our employees and our guests.”

Right now, Metz said he remains focused on the protocols that have been in place the whole pandemic—mask-wearing, social distancing, enhanced sanitation and air filtration.

“This is our new level of hospitality,” Metz said.

Going forward, operators who opt not to mandate the vaccine should find ways to incentivize getting the shot, Zero Hour’s Stone said.

Options include enhanced PTO or pay, pins for vaccinated workers, and public-facing marketing trumpeting the restaurant’s vaccination efforts, she said.

“You might incentivize and encourage it and have champions in every restaurant to help people get vaccinated, to help them schedule and figure it out,” Stone said.

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