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Restaurateurs stung by strict restrictions, low vaccine rank

Updated January 13, 2021 - 8:37 pm

The way Cory Harwell sees it, positioning food service workers toward the back of the line for COVID-19 vaccinations, announced simultaneously with a monthlong extension of restrictions, is a cruel irony.

“If we are such a danger to our community,” asked Harwell, who owns Carson Kitchen, “why aren’t we higher up on the vaccination list? You can’t have it both ways.”

Harwell and other restaurant owners contacted by the Review-Journal recently have no quarrel with health care and other front-line workers, the elderly and medically fragile getting top priority. But the extension of restrictions makes their own comparatively low ranking a bitter pill to swallow when many of them are fighting to save their businesses.

“You ever been punched in the throat?” asked Antonio Nunez, owner of The Stove. “That’s about where I was at” when he heard Gov. Steve Sisolak’s virtual news conference Monday evening. “We’re literally draining all of our bank accounts.”

“If you put us as a whole in the nation,” Nunez said, “we’re one of the largest employers. I completely understand doctors and nurses and elderly first, but this is one of the most important industries on the economy side of it. Small business supports the economy, and you’re killing that small business.”

‘How does that even make sense?’

Monday’s announcement placed food service and hospitality workers in the fourth category in the state’s front-line/essential workforce “lane,” below public safety, community support such as government officials, mortuary services and agriculture, utilities and the department of transportation.

Kristin Corral, owner of Tacotarian, said restaurant workers were completely left off of the state’s original “tiered” plan. But she said the current plan still makes little sense.

“You have every other step in the food supply chain — the people that are butchering the animals, the people that are growing the food, the people that are shipping the food, the people that are distributing the food — all right under teachers,” she said. “But the people that are actually touching the food and serving the customers with their own hands are completely at the bottom of the list. Like, how does that even make sense?”

Wyndee Forrest, co-owner of CraftHaus Brewery, said the state guidelines don’t seem to be in line with those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The CDC designates food and beverage workers as essential, and they are to be vaccinated in Tier 1B,” she said. “But the Nevada playbook that was rolled out (Monday) night still has food and beverage workers being vaccinated last, with the general public.”

“(Sisolak) keeps pinpointing us, and pushing our capacity further and further down,” Corral said. “But when it comes to vaccinating us, he wants to put us at the bottom as if we don’t matter. So how can we be both things? How can we be so high risk, and then not important enough to vaccinate?”

“If we’re not spreading infection,” Forrest said, “then why is there a need for us to stay at 25 percent capacity for another 30 days?”

‘Arbitrary restrictions’

Besides what many see as a flaw of logic, they point to the governor’s oft-repeated acknowledgment of the importance of the hospitality industry to Nevada, and worry that workers trying to keep things going are in real danger.

“We’re not requiring people who fly in to have negative tests,” as in some states, said John Anthony, manager of Sparrow + Wolf. “We just allow you to land at McCarran and walk right into a casino and start smoking around employees. So for them not to be considered front line is sort of insulting.”

“Our employees are seeing lots of people every day,” said Marcello Mauro, general manager of Nora’s Italian Cuisine. “We’re having to reduce occupancy and all this other stuff. Obviously, if restaurants are important to curbing the spread, I feel it’s important that employees working in restaurants are vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Ann Alenik, owner of the Pasta Shop Ristorante and Art Gallery, said she doesn’t think the overall scope of restrictions is effective against actual risk.

“A friend of mine just flew, and there were three people per row on the plane,” she said. “In a restaurant, you’re with your family or friends” and would probably be more aware of a COVID threat from them.

Others said they believe that retail establishments aren’t monitored for capacity and social distancing and that restaurants are the only sector that collects contact tracing information, via mandatory reservations.

“I’ve been as patient as I possibly can be with regard to all of the restrictions,” Harwell said. “At this point, continuing to extend arbitrary restrictions on one industry over another is simply ludicrous. There’s no science that COVID is spread at any greater fashion in a restaurant than in a retail environment.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter. Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter and Instagram.

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