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Some SF Restaurant Workers Can’t Prove Vaccine Eligibility. Is an ‘Honor System’ the Answer?

Advocates say restaurant workers shouldn’t be required to provide proof to get the shot as some can’t provide pay stubs or other forms of documentation

A man in a white coat and a mask gives a shot to a man with dark hair also in a mask.
San Francisco restaurant workers will be eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 on February 24 — but so far, its unclear what proof they’ll need to bring to get the shot
Getty Images

Restaurant workers got an alert from the city and county of San Francisco on Wednesday, February 17, that read, “based on what you told us, you are now in Phase 1B. San Francisco will begin vaccinating your group on February 24.” Sent to folks who registered for a notification when the new vaccination eligibility list was announced earlier this month, it raised more questions than answers, as nowhere in the message did the city explain how a bartender, dishwasher, server, or cook might be expected to prove that they are indeed in the newly eligible group.

Leaders in San Francisco’s restaurant industry, as well as advocates for the city’s Latinx community, say that the best plan would be to take appointment seekers at their word — but so far, officials haven’t made a decision about whether they’ll require proof of employment when the city begins vaccinating restaurant workers less than a week from today.

Like every other aspect of the pandemic, the vaccination rollout has been a confusing, make-it-up-as-we-go operation. It’s well known that supplies of the shots — which are distributed by the state — are difficult to predict and plan for. They’re so inconsistent, in fact, that on Valentine’s Day, San Francisco closed its high-volume vaccination clinics down, with Mayor London Breed tweeting that the centers had to temporarily close “because of supply constraints and how fast we are distributing shots,” saying, “I’m frustrated because we’ve shown that SF can administer shots as soon as they come in.”

City officials say that they hope to reopen its largest vaccination clinic, in the Moscone Center, by Monday, February 22. According to ABC 7, the eight-day closure has resulted in a 24,000-person backlog of appointments. Two days later, when San Francisco enters vaccination Phase 1B, Tier 1, 115,000 additional SF residents across the restaurant industry, emergency services, education, and child care can join that queue, making for a huge amount of people hoping for a limited supply of vaccines.

During the current vaccination period, only people over the age of 65 and health care workers are allowed to get the shots; proof of eligibility is required. Age-based recipients must present identification with a date of birth. Health care workers are required to demonstrate current employment, via a pay stub or “worker employee badge with photo.” But how does a restaurant worker — especially one who’s been laid off, and who is hopeful that as indoor dining slowly reopens, they can return to work — show similar proof?

The solution, Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) executive director Laurie Thomas says, is “the honor system.” Thomas’s group isn’t responsible for setting city policy: Its role is to lobby the city on behalf of the industry, arguing for official regulations and policies that support San Francisco’s 3,500 restaurants. Thomas says that she’s advised the city that the surest way to get shots into restaurant worker arms is to “ask them if they work at a restaurant, then take them at their word.”

It’s a departure from how many other cities are handling eligibility. According to an announcement from the Berkeley city manager’s office, “those receiving the vaccine based on their employment will need to provide documentation to confirm eligibility,” such as “a recent pay stub, a letter from their employer, or an employee ID badge.” And across the country, all of New York state requires documentation from an employer for every job-based vaccine seeker. This verification eligibility expectation is one that Thomas says “will just provide more barriers for getting the vaccines” and “slow down the process.”

Keeping the process speedy is top of mind for Thomas, who says that she’s hopeful that if San Francisco’s COVID-19 numbers continue to drop, the county could enter the red tier of California’s color-coded reopening plan “by mid-March.” That’s the tier that would allow San Francisco officials to reopen indoor dining at limited capacity — a reopening that would likely spur the rehiring of many long-unemployed restaurant workers.

Speed isn’t the only reason to use the honor-based system, says Mission District native and San Francisco Small Business Commissioner William Ortiz-Cartagena. When Thomas was formulating her restaurant worker eligibility recommendations for the city, she went to Ortiz-Cartagena, asking if proof like a letter from an employer was a practical expectation for restaurant workers from the Latinx community.

As a member of the city’s Latino Task Force and part of the Mission Food Hub food bank, Ortiz-Cartagena says he knew right away that “there are cultural barriers for asking for things like a letter from the boss,” he said, and that requiring proof of employment would “hold back the community that’s been hardest hit by the virus.” After Ortiz-Cartagena and Thomas talked it through, she grew to understand his position, he says. “That’s what makes San Francisco great,” Ortiz-Cartagena says. “People will have a conversation and come around to each other’s points of view.”

Thomas and Ortiz-Cartagena both agree that everything should be done to avoid a reopening-related spike like the one the region saw in late 2020, a spike that sickened thousands and prompted the state to shutter restaurants for all services but takeout. For Thomas, there’s the business consideration, as every reopening and closure wave prompts more permanent closures. And for Ortiz-Cartagena, there’s the role the industry plays in Latinx workers’ lives. “When the restaurants all reclosed in November,” Ortiz-Cartagena says, “we saw a huge spike in people visiting the Mission Food Hub.”

As restaurants often keep their workers fed, with places closed and workers at home, they lost their incomes as well as their source of meals. “We have to get everyone vaccinated right away, so we can get restaurants open and everyone back to work,” says Ortiz-Cartagena.

Ortiz-Cartagena and Thomas agree that some people might try to abuse the proposed honor system, but they consider the risks worthwhile for the rewards. “In the end, the goal is to get everyone vaccinated, right?” Thomas asks. “What are we supposed to do? Deputize health care workers to vet everyone who comes in the door?”

A lifelong San Franciscan, Ortiz-Cartagena chooses to believe that city residents will be guided by their consciences, and that concerns about the noneligible taking up still-scarce doses are overblown. “Are San Franciscans really going to try to game the system?” he asks. “Aren’t we better than that?”