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SC lawmaker wants to see restaurant workers given immediate access to coronavirus vaccine

Rep. JA Moore preparing salad

Rep. JA Moore makes sandwiches for medical workers at East Cooper Medical at his catering business on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in North Charleston. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A Goose Creek lawmaker is calling on the state to reclassify hospitality workers as members of Phase 1A under South Carolina’s vaccine distribution plan, moving them to the front of the line for coronavirus vaccines.

S.C. Rep. JA Moore on Tuesday introduced the concurrent resolution, which he says represents an opportunity for elected officials to serve the people who have served them throughout the pandemic.

“We have so many men and women in our industry who have been risking their lives to feed people in South Carolina, so I think it’s important we protect them,” said Moore, a working caterer who has spent nearly two decades in the food-and-beverage sector.

Restaurant workers are in the Phase 1C group, along with people aged 65-70 and younger people with designated underlying health conditions. Agricultural workers and grocery store workers are classified as Phase 1B.

It is not clear exactly when restaurant employees will be eligible for vaccinations if they remain in Phase 1C, although the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is targeting the “early spring.”

Prior to the state expanding Phase 1A this week to include people 70 and older, that top priority group was estimated to include 353,000 people. South Carolina has thus far received 233,600 vaccine doses.

Most states’ rollout plans generally mirror the plan adopted by South Carolina, which is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. But some municipalities are trying to fast-track food service employees: Washington, D.C., for example, is aiming to start vaccinating people who work in the city’s restaurants by Feb. 1.

When the CDC released its recommendations, the National Restaurant Association lobbied for hospitality workers to be upgraded to Phase 1B so they would “be safe selling and serving healthy food.”

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The staggered vaccination schedule has contributed to restaurant workers’ safety concerns, Moore said. He said he’s heard from front-of-house workers who fear that guests won’t observe COVID-19 protocols once they’re vaccinated.

According to Moore, there’s also an economic rationale for vaccinating restaurant workers right away. He points out that restaurants and bars coping with severely diminished revenue can’t afford to lose operating days to an employee outbreak.

Still, he acknowledges that other workers interacting with the public on a regular basis can make a good case for why they should be vaccinated sooner. Since he started floating his proposal, he’s been contacted by many educators who believe they deserve a higher slot on the state’s priority list.

Those calls and emails make a difference, Moore said. The Democrat is counting on his fellow food-and-beverage workers to contact their representatives, since he’d like to see the S.C. House approve his resolution before its session ends this week.

John Zucker, owner of Cru Cafe, said he's been closely monitoring vaccine releases: Nationwide, 25.5 million doses have been distributed, although just under 9 million doses have been administered.

"They seem to be so far behind on the vaccine that I honestly fear my staff will not be able to get it until at least the summer," he said.

"I accepted long ago that we are on our own to get through this, but my anger has come out recently with our government's lack of empathy for the people of this country," he said.

If restaurant workers can't access vaccines until the summer, Zucker said, he doesn't foresee getting back to normal before the very end of 2021. 

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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