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Restaurant Workers Left Stranded Amid Botched Vaccine Rollout Over the Weekend

NYC Health and Hospitals temporarily closed off access to vaccination appointments for restaurant workers due to “updated” state guidelines

A “Vaccination Site” sign is hung up by a worker as people wait in line to enter a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination site at Yankee Stadium on February 05, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City. 
A vaccination site at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

NYC restaurant workers were temporarily unable to schedule vaccine appointments over the weekend via the city’s Health and Hospitals website following confusion last week between city and state agencies on when restaurant workers could gain access to vaccinations. The temporary shutdown from February 5 through 7 left some restaurant owners and staffers unable to schedule vaccine appointments over the weekend, making it more difficult to secure first round vaccinations before indoor dining resumes in the city.

Restaurant workers and TLC-licensed taxi drivers were temporarily removed from NYC’s Health and Hospitals current vaccine eligibility list on Friday, February 5, three days after Cuomo first announced that both groups were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. The city’s Health and Hospitals network — which offers public health care at over 70 locations in NYC — runs a vaccination scheduler tool online where vaccine-eligible groups can search and schedule vaccination appointments in the city.

From February 2 until the morning of February 5, a restaurant worker could go to the Health and Hospitals website, answer a few background medical questions, select “Restaurant Worker” from a dropdown menu of vaccine eligible groups, and search for open vaccination appointments in their area.

Sometime during the day on Friday, February 5, restaurant workers and TLC-licensed taxi drivers were removed from the website’s vaccine-eligibility list. A front-of-house restaurant staffer in NYC who declined to give his name to protect his job says that he had been trying to make an appointment through the Health and Hospitals network all last week, and was alarmed to see restaurant workers disappear without explanation when he checked the website on Friday afternoon.

Over the following few days, people who had been trying to schedule vaccines through the website took to social media to call out Health and Hospitals with screenshots of the newly nonexistent worker categories. “For days I’ve been on @NYCHealthSystem vaccine finder for my dad, a restaurant worker,” Twitter user @lulucian wrote. “This morning, both Restaurant Work & Taxi Driver categories are gone. WHAT GIVES?”

The confusion appears to stem from a miscommunication between the city and state on when exactly restaurant workers and taxi drivers could start scheduling vaccination appointments. When Cuomo announced on February 2 that restaurant workers and taxi drivers became eligible to receive the vaccine, there was no explicit date given for when those vaccinations could start. In the city, appointments opened up immediately. Multiple staffers confirmed with Eater New York that they scheduled and received first rounds of vaccination from February 3 to February 5; others including Fany Gerson of La Newyorkina and Hong Thaimee of Thaimee Love took to Instagram to post updates that they had received vaccinations last week.

Later in the week, a spokesperson for the state clarified the announcement and specified that restaurant workers and TLC-licensed taxi drivers could not begin receiving vaccinations until Monday, February 8.

Subsequently, on Friday, February 5, restaurant workers and TLC-licensed taxi drivers temporarily disappeared from Health and Hospitals’s vaccine eligibility list. The two categories disappeared after the public corporation “updated their list to reflect state guidelines,” a department spokesperson said.

Both groups were both re-added to the website’s vaccine-eligibility list on Monday, February 8. In response to questions on Monday about the temporary removal, a spokesperson from Health and Hospitals said in an email that “NYC Health + Hospitals must conduct all vaccinations in compliance with state guidance, which were updated today.”

A screenshot with white lettering on a blue blackground
A February 6 screenshot of Health and Hospital’s website for scheduling vaccinations
A screenshot of white lettering on a blue background
A February 8 screenshot of Health and Hospital’s website for scheduling vaccinations

The abrupt flip-flop, which came after Cuomo had already announced that restaurant workers were vaccine-eligible, left some caught in the middle. Melvin “Boots” Johnson, the chef and owner of Harlem Biscuit Company, posted a video on Instagram detailing his experience of walking into a neighborhood vaccination site with a doctor over the past weekend only to be told that restaurant workers and taxi drivers had been “revoked” from access to vaccination “until further notice.”

“It’s completely confusing,” Johnson tells Eater New York. He estimates that he has looked online for vaccine appointments 50 times at different points last week after Cuomo expanded eligibility.

Johnson is hoping to get access to vaccination for himself and his staff as quickly as possible to provide an extra layer of protection as people are still getting sick and there are reports of several variants of the coronavirus. “I need to get this [vaccination] information to my staff,” Johnson says. “If I can’t get information and figure out a right path — it’s not working.”

Jack Sterne, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said that Health and Hospitals made the right move to remove access to vaccination appointments for restaurant workers and taxi drivers following the clarification on when those vaccinations could begin.

“When they realized that they were not in full compliance, they rectified it, which was the right thing to do,” Sterne says.

Still, the confusion and back-and-forth with Health and Hospitals has only added to the difficulties that restaurant workers have experienced in trying to schedule vaccination appointments in NYC. Elsewhere, after the mayor announced that the new vaccination hub at Citi Field would be dedicated in part to servicing food industry workers, some immediately started reporting trouble with gaining access to vaccination appointments.

The fumbles over the vaccination rollout have created more headaches and extra work for some restaurant owners and staffers, who are already juggling putting their health at risk and collecting a paycheck during a pandemic. And now, with indoor dining about to return on February 12, access to vaccination for restaurant workers has become an even more urgent need.

“If we’re expected to do indoor dining again, shouldn’t we be vaccinated?” the front-of-house worker asked. As of Tuesday, despite repeated attempts throughout the day, he’s been unable to schedule a vaccination appointment, he says.