And as mothers so often do, Lucio wants to make sure her folks have the information they need to stay happy and healthy. Mothers remind their kids to put on a sweater when it’s cold outside and to eat their vegetables. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the messaging is more serious. When the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment opened Phase 1B.4 for vaccine eligibility on March 19, Lucio was on top of it.
“The minute (the vaccine) became available to the restaurant industry, we broadcast a real-time message that day using our HotSchedules app requesting that they make an appointment within the next 60 days to be vaccinated,” Lucio said.
Out of 280 employees, Lucio said 95% have jumped right on it so far.
“We gave them three vaccine sites to contact, including one in Denver for the Blue Agave employees, and The Ranch Events Complex in Larimer County which held a two-day vaccination event this week offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” she said.
She counts about 75 employees who showed up for those events. The company requests that vaccinated workers show their COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card to Beth Aleman, HR director for the Lucio family of restaurants. Aleman documents the fact of vaccination and keeps the document in a locked cabinet to maintain HIPAA confidentiality.
“We’re following HIPAA guidelines 100% but we’re recognizing it’s a public health measure. If we have an outbreak, it helps with contact tracing that they’re vaccinated. We need to know if COVID was brought in by a customer or an employee,” Aleman said. “HIPAA compliance still must be followed as long as guidelines for controlling confidential information are followed.”
Aleman likens it to going to college: You have to provide your immunization record to the school, then it’s locked up and not shared.
Lucio’s employees may opt out of vaccination if they express concerns or have established religious or health reasons.
“We’ve had very little pushback overall, there are very few not willing to get a vaccine,” Lucio said. “I think the state looks at the restaurant industry as leaders. There are so many methods to keep our doors open, and it’s the final step to return to healthfulness. We recognize it’s for the safety of our employees and guests.”
She said some of her younger employees think they’re immune from getting COVID, but she reminds them that we all have elderly parents, aunts and uncles to protect. She also knows young people who have become ill from the virus.
Although the restaurant industry initially had been placed in the 1B.3 vaccine phase alongside frontline essential grocery and agriculture workers, the group was bumped down a phase. Lucio said she was disappointed that restaurants were bumped below grocery workers because she believes restaurant servers are more involved with the public face to face than grocery workers are. Ultimately, it turned out to be a nine-day delay, and Lucio is thankful her group wasn’t lumped into the general population in Phase 2.
“The governor recognized we are essential and have direct contact,” she said.
Confidence in the vaccination process is slowly growing
For Justin Brown, chef and owner of Gourmet Grub in Greeley, the vaccine delay is welcome. Brown has talked to his employees to let them know what’s happening. A few servers are interested in getting vaccinated, as are several cooks.
“A few who are older are interested. There are some with pre-existing health conditions” he said. “The younger ones, it’s kind of a push, to be honest.”
Brown thinks 50% of his employees will get it right away and some will morph into it. He said he doesn’t have any underlying health conditions and has been healthy throughout the pandemic. Only one Gourmet Grub employee contracted the virus. He said most are a little frightened by the vaccine and are waiting for pharmaceutical companies to work the kinks out.
“As things develop and trials aren’t done at such a rush like the first ones had to be, we want to get it but safely,” he said. “We’re a little bit more punched for the J and J vaccine because it’s a one shot. Two months ago, most of us would have said no. Now, 80% are into it.”
The first step back towards normalizing the industry
According to industry statistics compiled by the Colorado Restaurant Association, restaurant sales were expected to exceed $13 billion in 2019. As a result of the coronavirus shutdowns and dining capacity restrictions, the industry lost $3 billion in 2020.
Prior to the pandemic, Colorado’s foodservice industry employed 285,000 workers, accounting for nearly 10% of the state’s labor force. Although CRA’s March data from 212 operator surveys relative to changes in the state dial showed some improvement in employment, restaurant staffing is still down, with more than 77,000 workers unemployed.
Sonia Riggs, CEO and president of the CRA, said getting vaccines in arms is the first step to increasing capacity in restaurants.
“Keeping workers safe and making guests feel comfortable can get us back to a sense of normalcy for the industry,” she said.
Riggs hopes with the vaccine becoming more prevalent, restaurants can decrease distancing. Relaxing capacity limits with the CDPHE’s recent 3.0 Dial change on Wednesday in reality only affected large restaurants, she said.
“Six-foot distancing is the number one challenge for restaurants increasing their capacity,” Riggs said. “Operating at 20-50% capacity is the reality with that 6-foot distancing.”
She hopes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will apply its recent reduction to 3 feet for schools to restaurants.
The state dial change permits restaurants in Level Blue counties to operate with 100% capacity with 6 feet of distancing between parties. Bars can have 25% capacity or 75 people.
Weld County is currently one step higher in the risk categories at Level Yellow, but 5 Star Certified businesses may operate with Level Blue restrictions. According to Greeley City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead, there are 28 businesses in Greeley with 5 Star certification. Of those, 23 are restaurants.
Riggs expects to see big changes on mask use indoors from the governor’s office in the next several weeks. The CRA is pushing for plexiglass partitioning in lieu of 6-foot distancing, if those numbers aren’t reduced. Riggs is working with Michael Daly from DMA Engineering, who prepared a study on how HVAC filters and air circulation can take risk factors down by 85% when there are unmasked patrons.
In looking at the plexiglass aspect, Daly said state governments are allowing for differing methodologies to reduce table-to-table transmissions.
“Booths with high backs was one variation; placing plexiglass partitions could create the same sense of seclusion,” he said. “It’s less expensive than overhauling HVAC systems, but it makes it feel like you’re dining in a maze. Restaurants are already challenged by getting up to higher occupancy. Partitioning the dining area makes that more difficult.”
Riggs believes vaccines are the first step in getting restaurants fully open and the economy back to full capacity. She sees a lot of pent-up demand to get back out to dining in restaurants.
“Let’s first vaccinate this high risk population — the servers, bussers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers who are constantly in contact with each other — then ease restrictions. People will be more comfortable getting out as they see COVID numbers going down.”
Sunrise Community Health leads the way in underserved populations
The state has held restaurant specific clinics in Denver, El Paso, Summit and Larimer counties. While Riggs is pushing for additional clinics, she recommended going to the colorado.gov site and clicking on the “Where Can I Get Vaccinated” link.
CRA members can find information on the CRA home page by clicking on the COVID-19 Resource Center button. Shots are free with no cost or copay, although you may be asked to provide your insurance card if you have health insurance. Whether seeking to be vaccinated at mass vaccination clinics, other healthcare providers or pharmacies, a confirmed appointment is required.
Sunrise Community Health in Greeley is running clinics in their Greeley and Loveland campuses. They are currently offering clinics four days per week but plan to ramp up to six weekly, depending on the vaccine supply.
As of Thursday, Sunrise has immunized 18,000 people. The health center offers access to the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer brands and has requested the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but hasn’t received it yet.
“The challenge is we don’t always get what we order,” said Chalice Springfield, Sunrise’s chief development and communications officer. “The vial numbers can vary, with between 3,000-5,000 doses per week, depending on the number of clinics and second doses. The supply has gotten better but it’s still not realtime. We only know what we’ve received after opening the box. One week we ordered 3,000, were told we were getting 300, but received 700. It’s Christmas Day when we open the box.”
Last week Sunrise received good news. As a federally qualified health center, it is a participant in the federal Health Center COVID-19 Vaccine Program, allowing access to vaccines designated for lower-income, underserved populations, and hosting equity health clinics.
Sunrise was awarded $8.6 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan, part of the $6 billion U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investment in Community Health Centers nationwide, according to a Thursday news release. Funding will strengthen pandemic response by expanding COVID-19 vaccinations, among other things. Sunrise aims to reach 12,000 people per month going forward.
As of Wednesday, Sunrise had booked or done about 300 vaccinations specific to the restaurant industry. Working hand in hand with the Greeley Area Chamber of Commerce to contact operators, Sunrise received lists of restaurant workers indicating they wanted vaccines.
The health care center reached out to schedule, working to accommodate each individual’s availability. Sunrise has provided vaccines to Luna’s Tacos and Tequila, Wing Shack, Margie’s Java Joint, The Kress, The G.O.A.T. Sports Bar, Kenny’s Steakhouse, Aunt Helen’s Coffee House, Jerri J’s Cakes, Patrick’s Irish Pub, 477 Distilling and High Brau Taphouse, to date.
In communications between Springfield and Samantha Corliss of Luna’s Tacos and Tequila, Corliss expressed great appreciation for Sunrise’s clinics.
“I literally cannot tell you the excitement I am hearing from (my staff of mostly young 20 somethings). I am so grateful and hopeful for this summer and rest of the year, it’s unreal!” Corliss said.
Brown has noticed that patrons have doubled in the last 90 days at Gourmet Grub. While he thinks part may be that people feel spring is coming, he credits the increase in part to vaccines.
The restaurant will do their traditional Easter and Mother’s Day brunch. Brown said he took 100 reservations for Easter Brunch the first day they started taking them. He’s heard that mask guidelines will be lifted around then, but won’t mandate servers not to wear them if doing so makes them uncomfortable.
“I don’t want anyone coming into their job feeling unsafe,” he said. “They’re exposed to a lot of people on a daily basis. We’ve followed the ordinances and government suggestions since day one, it’s been difficult to get through that, but it’s the right thing to do.”
For Lucio, the pandemic has never been political.
“It’s just about humanity,” she said, adding that she’s happy seeing guests coming out to eat who she hasn’t seen for a year. “It’s very uplifting for our entire staff to start seeing more people in the restaurant enjoying themselves. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”