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Downtown Charleston restaurants cheer expansion of vaccine access to hospitality employees

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Forrest Brunton works on food for a customer's order during dinner at Chasing Sage on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

The Post and Courier Food section since August has been checking in weekly with four downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. The following three restaurants are still finding their way back to normalcy. For previous installments of the series, as well as more information about the featured restaurants and their chosen strategies for success, click here.

Harold's Cabin: Retrospective mood

It’s anniversary season.

March 8 marks one year since the Charleston Wine + Food Festival closed out its final in-person event where much of the small talk concerned the coronavirus and the city of Austin’s decision two days prior to cancel SXSW.

Butcher & Bee owner Michael Shemtov remembers fellow restaurateur Meherwan Irani telling him he’d run a worst-case scenario calculation, projecting what would happen if revenue dipped 30 percent at his restaurants in Asheville, N.C., and Atlanta.

Harold’s Cabin didn’t involve itself in any Wine + Food goings-on, but on March 15 served its final meal to a guest in its dining room. Two days after that Sunday brunch, it reinvented itself as a takeout operation.

By March 27, Harold’s Cabin was closed. It’s stayed that way ever since.

Amid the milestones, owner John Schumacher is looking back. He’s looking forward, too.

" ’Tidal wave’ was a shortsighted assessment,” he says of his March 2020 mindset. “The situation now feels more like a tsunami.”

As he recollects, Schumacher makes sure not to disregard the losses. He weekly visits NPR’s Songs of Remembrance website, memorializing a small fraction of the 500,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 by sharing the musical selections they loved most.

“But to remain and wallow in such a state isn’t healthy or productive,” Schumacher said, adding that he’s also taking stock of the extra miles cycled, books read and dishes cooked over the past year.

And he recently realized that he’s spent more time with his mother than during any other 12-month period since he went off to college. It’s a trend that’s likely to continue as she begins to lean on him for care.

Chasing Sage: Through the tunnel

As soon as Chasing Sage owner Cindy Edward heard last week that South Carolina was progressing to the second phase of its COVID-19 vaccination plan, she called her doctor. She was so quick to call that the doctor’s office hadn’t gotten word of the development yet.

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“You’re not 55,” the person who answered the phone said.

Edward urged her to check the news, which she did while Edward was still on the phone. She confirmed that front-line workers are eligible to make vaccination appointments as of March 8.

The state defines front-line workers as people who can’t work remotely and are frequently within 6 feet of other people while at work.

“That means restaurant workers, which means us,” chef-owner Forrest Brunton said two days after the announcement that hospitality employees have been anxiously awaiting. “It’s a light at the end of the tunnel: It’s tangible. It’s a real thing.”

To Edward, it’s not just real, but “massive.”

Still, she had to wait until Monday to set up an appointment. When she got off the phone, she was on a waitlist. Many South Carolinians in the first eligibility group haven’t advanced past that point because of vaccine shortages in some places. It’s unclear exactly when restaurant workers will be able to obtain shots now that they’re cleared to register for them.

But for now, what matters most to the Chasing Sage team is having the chance to sign up.

Butcher & Bee: Another shot

Butcher & Bee’s staff is “relatively young,” chief of staff Tara Pate said, so most of them aren’t in the habit of paying attention to vaccination developments. They think about vaccinations in connection with their grandparents and parents but hadn’t considered them as a protective measure for food-and-beverage workers on the cusp of the city’s busiest tourist season.

“No one really knew” about the expanded eligibility, said Pate, who last week was tremendously excited to tell employees about the new opportunity.

In addition to verbally alerting employees to vaccination appointments, Butcher & Bee has posted QR codes that lead to more information about the process.

“We put a note on there that said, ‘If you have any sort of problems, we’re here for you.’ Like, the door is open,” Pate said.

In other words, while Pate can’t refresh webpages that stubbornly don’t display open appointments, she’s ready to help employees who aren’t sure where to get a vaccination or have trouble accessing the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s appointment finder.

“They’ve been scared the whole time,” Pate said, adding that behavior she’s recently witnessed by out-of-state guests at other restaurants has only compounded workers’ worries about infections.

Across Charleston hospitality, everyone last week used the same word to describe the feeling which has finally displaced fear: Relief.

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

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