After a ‘long, difficult journey,’ vaccines provide hope to Philly restaurant workers

A coalition of restaurant owners has organized a series of mass vaccination events for industry workers who are happy for relief after a rollercoaster year.

Nicole Marquis, restaurant owner and co-founder of the Save Philly Restaurants coalition, and Lindsay Dymowski Constantino, president and owner of Centennial Pharmacy, worked together to provide vaccine doses to food industry workers. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Nicole Marquis, restaurant owner and co-founder of the Save Philly Restaurants coalition, and Lindsay Dymowski Constantino, president and owner of Centennial Pharmacy, worked together to provide vaccine doses to food industry workers. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

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A day shy of the one year anniversary of the first mandated coronavirus business closures in Pennsylvania, dozens of food service workers lined up outside of Centennial Pharmacy in Northern Liberties to get their first dose of the vaccine.

“I think for the past year the outlook was kind of bleak, like things are never going to be normal again,” said Chloe Fiamiano, an artist and restaurant hostess in South Philadelphia.

“The vaccine alleviates some of the darkness,” she continued.

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The Save Philly Restaurants Coalition, a group representing owners of 300 restaurants, worked with the pharmacy to hand out the doses to workers in one of the industries that has felt the biggest financial shocks during the pandemic. An estimated 64 restaurants have closed permanently in Philadelphia since last March, and statewide unemployment figures show the leisure and hospitality sectors have a quarter fewer jobs than they did pre-pandemic.

“It’s been a very long, difficult journey and I am so grateful to be here today to say, ‘Ok, we made it.’ It looks like this is the light at the end of a very long tunnel,” said Nicole Marquis, owner of several restaurants in Philadelphia and coalition co-founder.

Food workers are eligible for vaccines in Philadelphia in the 1B category. The coalition is one of many industry- or community-specific groups that sought out a pharmacy partnership in order to ensure its members could get vaccinated. Similar partnerships exist for local immigrants, and for teachers, for example. While originally intended to last for only one day, around 900 people expressed interest in Monday’s event, and 450 received their first dose. That level of interest pushed organizers to create future dates which they say will offer “thousands” more slots. Eligible participants can sign up here, and will be asked to demonstrate a connection to the food service industry.

Food industry workers wait in line for doses of the coronavirus vaccine outside Centennial Pharmacy. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

“Despite restaurant workers being eligible for the vaccine, under phase 1B, there’s been a lot of hesitancy and confusion around it,” said Marquis. The sign-up is intended to speed up doses and get restaurants running at full capacity as quickly as possible, she said.

The service industry, and restaurants in particular, have had to adapt to waves of COVID-19 regulations aimed at keeping the public safe. Those restrictions are slowly relaxing as case counts subside after a winter peak. Most recently, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that bar service can resume in April. Philadelphia maintains its own coronavirus restrictions and it’s not clear if it will follow the state’s lead.

Brittany Cooper, a bartender at Garage Fishtown and North Third in Northern Liberties, described the rollercoaster effect those closures and restrictions have had on her life.

“I was on unemployment for probably three months, and then back temporarily for a month or so, and then restrictions changed and I was on unemployment again through December and January, and now I’m back at it again,” she said.

Brittany Cooper, a bartender in Philadelphia, received her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Monday, March 15th, at a pop-up event just for food industry workers. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Cooper feels lucky to be working, but the career food-service worker said she’s had to learn how to do her job effectively from a distance.

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“It went from being like a super personal job to just a job,” she said. “I just kind of make drinks and wave.”

Ara Carter, a barista and warehouse worker, said she is happy to have the vaccine but mostly feels “tired” from the year-long ordeal.

“I’m happy I got the vaccine, but my concern level has not gone down,” she said. Working during the pandemic has meant constantly weighing whether she could keep herself safe on the job, and feeling anxious about if her employers would enforce coronavirus safety protocols.

“I had a lot of offers like, ‘Yeah you can come into work, but we’re not going to do anything to make you safe,’” she said. Carter said she had jobs where mask-wearing for customers and temperature checks for staff were not enforced, risks she said she could not take. Now, she is working in food preparation in a warehouse, but still has fewer hours than she did pre-COVID-19.

The American Rescue Plan Act provides nearly $30 billion for struggling restaurants, and also continues boosted unemployment for those who can’t work due to the pandemic. Carter said she still fears aid could be cut off before workers regain their footing in a post-pandemic job market.

Reflecting on the last year, she said, “I’m really sad for how many people this has needlessly affected.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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