More than 1,000 people call for Ontario restaurant workers to be in Phase 2 of COVID-19 vaccine rollout

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TORONTO -- More than 1,000 people have signed a petition asking the Ontario government to include restaurant workers on their list of people eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 2.

Cassie MacKell, owner of Low Down bar in Collingwood, Ont., started the petition and forwarded a letter to Premier Doug Ford and members of the COVID-19 vaccine task force, citing the need for those in the food and beverage industry to be prioritized.

“General Hillier and Premier Ford, if the vaccines are determined by level of risk, I ask you to consider the following: We prepare and serve meals to people who are not wearing masks while they eat or drink. We cannot stay six feet apart from our guests, we cannot work from behind plexi-glass and we certainly cannot work from home,” McKell’s letter reads.

“Now that Ontario has a steady flow of vaccines available, it is devastating and completely unacceptable to see that restaurant and food service workers are not considered essential candidates for Phase 2.”

Last week, the Ontario government released a comprehensive list of who would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine once the province enters Phase 2 of its distribution. Under the category of essential employees who cannot work from home, officials have prioritized school staff, food manufacturing workers, agriculture farm workers.

Next on the list are high-risk and critical retail workers such as those in grocery stories and pharmacies, and lower-risk retail workers.

Restaurant staff or members of the food and beverage industry are not specifically mentioned.

MacKell told CTV News Toronto that she was really confused when she saw the list of people being prioritized in Phase 2.

“I say in my petition and I just can't say it enough—we're touching boxes and forks that have been in people's mouths,” she said. “We do wash our hands and sanitize numerous and unlimited amount of times during our shift, but I mean all it takes is you to not wash your hands completely or to miss it one time or something and anyone can get sick.”

MacKell told CTV News Toronto that she has not opened her restaurant to indoor dining since the pandemic was declared out of concern for her staff, focusing instead on takeout options and patio service.

“We haven't felt that it's safe to have people indoors without their masks on,” she said, adding that even with patio service she sometimes experiences fear clearing tables or talking to people not wearing masks.

If her staff was able to get the COVID-19 vaccine, MacKell says that she would “absolutely” reopen her restaurant for indoor service.

The confusion over where restaurant workers stand on the priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine appears to be a widespread problem. Restaurants Canada says they hope that food and beverage employees will be included along with grocery store workers and the agriculture sector, but has not been able to get clarity from the government.

“We tried to get some clarity from the government and have unsuccessful as of yet,” James Rilett, VP of Central Canada, said.

“When you look at the list, it talks about food manufacturing, agriculture workers, grocery stores. So, you would think that we would be right in with all those as a similar industry ,but it doesn't specify that we're included, so it is leading many in the industry to be nervous as to where in the rollout we fall.”

Rilett said that including food and beverage workers in Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout would also solidify their status as essential workers responsible for serving and feeding the public.

More than 10 per cent of restaurants in Canada have already closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Restaurants Canada, and about 25 per cent of workers in the industry are not yet back at work.

For MacKell, who opened her restaurant in September 2019, she says she has been able to survive thanks to a community dedicated to supporting local businesses.

“It's been it's been a long and interesting year,” she said. “We definitely miss serving people and bartending for people and we look forward to having that, but right now it's just about getting through, opening up safely when the time's right.”

As of 4 p.m. on Wednesday, MacKell’s petition had more than 1,000 signatures.

CTV News Toronto reached out on Wednesday to the Ministry of Health for clarity on where restaurant workers stand in the vaccine lineup and was told that a response would come on Monday the following week.