As of February 2, some 6 million people have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine while 26.4 million have received one or more. In total, roughly 32.8 million doses have been administered.
It’s far off from the Trump administration’s prediction of 20 million vaccinations by the end of December. President Joe Biden promised 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, and recently said that total could increase to 1.5 million doses per day. The new commander in chief also noted that he feels confident the U.S. will be “well on its way” to achieving herd immunity by the summer.
So where do restaurants fit in? The CDC places workers in Phase 1c, which comes after frontline healthcare personnel, first responders, teachers, grocery store employees, and individuals aged 75 and older. The CDC estimates more than 70 million people are in Phase 1a and 1b, which suggests the U.S. isn’t close to reaching restaurant workers as February approaches. So now, it becomes a waiting game for operators across the country.
One looming question is whether restaurateurs will incentivize or even mandate the vaccination. The latter option appears to be a possibility, according to guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC said the American Disabilities Act limits an employer’s ability to require medical exams, but the vaccine doesn’t qualify as a medical exam because it doesn’t seek information about an individual’s impairments or current health status. Therefore, employers have room to mandate vaccines if they can show an unvaccinated worker poses a “direct threat” that cannot be “eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”
But just because a restaurant has the power to do something, doesn’t mean it will. According to an operator survey from insights platform Black Box Intelligence, 39 percent of restaurant owners plan to recommend employees get vaccinated without an incentive. Thirty percent said they don’t have final plans, while 28 percent noted they will recommend the vaccine with an incentive. Two percent said they’ll mandate the vaccine, and another 2 percent said they won’t encourage or require it. Five percent of respondents told Black Box that vaccine policy “keeps them up at night” compared to 36 percent being concerned about additional restrictions and 22 percent being worried about policy changes with the Biden administration.
Kathy Dudley Helms, a member of labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins’ Coronavirus Taskforce and Healthcare Practice Group, said more vaccinated employees would be a plus for restaurant operators.
“Servers come into daily contact with customers about whom they may have little knowledge as to safety precautions those individuals are taking,” Dudley Helms said. “Accordingly, it may protect the restaurant employees if the servers are vaccinated. Furthermore, because indoor dining has been viewed as one of the areas where community spread is likely, knowing that a restaurant’s staff is vaccinated may help individuals to feel more secure and encourage them to dine with the restaurant or even go inside to pick up their food. The more assurance the public and employees can be given, the more likely it is that these businesses, even if slowly, are allowed to again open and hopefully open at a greater capacity.”
Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse parent Darden Restaurants announced recently that it will pay employees to get vaccinated so that they won’t have to use paid sick leave. The company, which oversees more than 1,800 stores, is offering two hours of pay for each dose, with $20 per hour being the max rate.
This policy also covers Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Yard House, Bahama Breeze, and Eddie V’s.
“We recognize getting vaccinated is a personal decision that you alone can make,” CEO Gene Lee said in a letter to employees. “While we will not require hourly team members to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, we strongly encourage you to consider getting vaccinated.”