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A look inside Cold Drinks Bar, the elegant cocktail lounge at China Live in Chinatown. Patricia Chang

SF Restaurant Workers Resort to an Underground Vaccine Network

Restaurant workers are successfully getting their first vaccines, but only by scrambling through texts and stories and endlessly hitting refresh

At the time of writing, we’re one week into the vaccine scramble. SF restaurant workers have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccines since February 24, when the city moved into Phase 1B, which includes more than 168,000 teachers, police officers, and restaurant workers, among others. But as soon as the announcement was made, there were warnings of delays due to shortages in supplies, snowstorms across the country, and the need to prioritize second doses for health care workers and seniors.

Eater SF is hearing heartening success stories from restaurateurs, chefs, cooks, bartenders, and servers who have been able to get first doses. But they’ve tracked down those shots only with significant effort. It’s also still unclear what documentation they’ll be asked to provide, a concern for unemployed or undocumented workers. Many are resorting to an underground network of text messages and Instagram stories, as well as simply hitting refresh for days on end.

“Vaccines are like buying concert tickets on Ticketmaster — nearly impossible,” quipped Marc Zimmerman from Gozu.

“It’s a cluster,” said Thomas Medl from La Mar. “A lot of demand for too little product... Everyone is happy to be working again, though.”

SF restaurant workers were supposed to be able to sign up for alerts through a couple of government websites. SF.gov is run by the city and county of San Francisco, and links out to the locations at Moscone, City College, and in the Bayview, but it’s suffered delays due to supply issues. MyTurn.ca.gov is run by the statewide California Department of Public Health, and currently only lists the Oakland Coliseum supersite. Both are far from a comprehensive list of locations where vaccines are available, and restaurant workers are reporting that they’re either not receiving alerts or have been unable to find appointments.

In the absence of one authoritative government website, some seeking vaccines have turned to community-run websites, such as VaccinateCA.com. Ali Hooke, the chef and owner of Chef’s Cart, said that after weeks of searching, her engineer boyfriend recommended the site, and that’s how she finally got a shot. Vaccinate CA was set up by a group of volunteers who connected on Twitter.

“We all came to a similar conclusion: We were all seeing ourselves or our loved ones searching 20 or 30 places, trying desperately to find a vaccine,” says Zoelle Egner, one of the founders. And while a few tech professionals helped set up the website, they’re really just relying on good old-fashioned phone calls.

“The core assumption that we have as a group is that because eligibility is changing so quickly, and because availability changes so quickly … the best way to get the most accurate information, in our experience, is to literally get someone on the phone,” says Egner. They’re far from capturing every single location where you can get a vaccine, she says, but it’s a “much longer list and much more comprehensive” than the government options.

To add to the confusion, keep in mind that vaccines are allocated by the state, but are supplied directly by the federal government. Anecdotally, restaurant workers seem to be having the best luck with the massive Oakland Coliseum and small neighborhood pharmacies (national chains like Walgreens or CVS are supplied by the federal government). Egner also points out that not only do eligibility and availability vary from county to county, they can also differ from location to location: “You could have a CVS in Contra Costa tell you something different than a CVS in Alameda,” she says. “You could have a CVS and a Walgreens across the street from each other tell you something different.” Vaccinate CA’s team is also hoping to be able to add details on what documentation is required at each location, but they haven’t gotten that far yet.

Chef Nate Norris, from Zuni Cafe, says that most of his team is insured by Kaiser, which is still busy taking care of seniors, and is directing restaurant workers to seek vaccines elsewhere. But at least a third of his team has been able to get vaccines through the Oakland Coliseum. “Were it not for the immense boost of the FEMA-run Coliseum program, this vaccine misdirection would be very frustrating,” Norris said over email. “But the Biden administration has come through.”

Others are relying on word of mouth, resorting to an underground network on social media. Adahlia Cole of @hungryhungryhooker is a food photographer and writer with strong connections to the hospitality industry. She’s been running Instagram stories to get the word out to her nearly 15,000 followers. “Right now I’m focused on trying to help our community of food and agriculture workers access COVID vaccine appointments, because the process has wavered between frustrating and frankly Sisyphean,” Cole wrote over email. She has directly assisted 18 people with appointments, and every time, she records the experience and posts the details, including where they got through and how the process worked.

“Instagram has been an invaluable tool for getting the word out,” she says. “It’s a central digital location for people to connect and to post information from many different sources. When I put crowdsourced info up on my stories, I don’t have to worry about going in to edit outdated information later, because I know it will delete in 24 hours, making room for more current information.”

In San Francisco, this vaccine scramble is coinciding with the reopening of indoor dining. Even though restaurant workers have only been eligible to get vaccines since February 24, the city is already reopening indoor dining on March 3, giving these workers only one week to get those first shots, which to some feels like uncomfortably tight timing. SF restaurant workers have shared mixed feelings about going back to work: immense relief to have both shots and paychecks. Hesitation to have only received the first of two doses. Awareness that while they might be better protected, there is still a possibility that they can transmit the virus.

Yong Zhu is the lead mixologist at China Live, pouring mai tais over pebbled ice in the Cold Drinks bar on the second story of the Chinatown emporium. He got his first shot on Monday, and said it left him feeling a little foggy, but he hoped to shake it off before going back into work on Wednesday. He searched for appointments every day for a week, before realizing that as a resident of the Bayview, he could just walk up to the area’s produce mart. Zhu brought a pay stub, his work ID, and proof of his ZIP code, which they did ask to see, but he overheard others in line explain that they worked in the restaurant industry and were currently looking for work, and says that they were also let through. He says that he’s been texting constantly, and “probably 80 of my friends who worked in the industry are still trying to get them. It’s so hard to get appointments.”

“I can’t wait to go back to work, actually,” Zhu says. “Yeah, it’s just been too long. You kind of miss working behind the bar.” He says he feels lucky to have gotten his first shot, but doesn’t feel safe yet. And in the meantime, he’s walking into a completely different style of service. Cold Drinks bar will now be reservations only, with guests spaced apart and time limits on seating. It will be his job to remind customers to wear masks, and to tell them that they are required to order food. And while there are far fewer guests in the lounge, he’s also got less support behind the bar. No servers, no barbacks, just him and one other bartender, serving a dozen-odd guests.

“It feels super strange,” Zhu says. “Very strange. But it’s a good thing if we can start from here.” Chatting with his friends and colleagues who have been able to track down those first shots, he says most agree, “We feel lucky. We feel safer. All of us can’t wait to go back to work.”

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