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‘Honor system’ — Capitol Hill’s essential food and drink workers have decision to make on COVID-19 vaccine eligibility

Seattle’s vaccination mega site at Lumen Field is ready to go (Image: King County)

Seattle is ramping up vaccination efforts to the highest levels yet and with the new resources will come eligibility for some types of essential workers.

But there will be no protection for a key group of workers essential to the city and Capitol Hill.

The solution? Well, that might be a matter of the state vaccination system’s honor code and making some personal decisions about who should be considered an essential worker.

“Restaurant workers and all of the coffee shop workers are not included in the essential workers definition to be given vaccine,” Espresso Vivace owner David Schomer says. “This is especially dangerous for our community because many people take off their mask to enjoy food or coffee indoors at establishments that are allowing indoor dining in order to survive.”

Up until now, the idea of people “line jumping” and getting vaccinated ahead of eligible groups has been repugnant. Our hospital workers, the elderly, those at the highest risk of suffering and death — those were the people the shots needed to get to. But as Washington moves to a new layer of its vaccination rollout and the national supplies from Johnson & JohnsonPfizer, and Moderna are projected to reach levels necessary to serve every adult in the nation before summer, a much fuzzier moral environment awaits.

If you think you are essential, March 22nd might just be your time. UPDATE: Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the addition of “Phase 1B, Tier 2” of the state’s just a little bit too complicated vaccination groupings will be moved up five days to March 17th.

Inside Vivace’s Broadway location, signs ask in the friendliest way possible for customers to wait to enjoy their coffee outside so they don’t lift their mask in the shop. Schomer has reopened Vivace to continue serving customers but says he won’t open indoor seating until his staff is vaccinated.

“Anybody studying the science would have to agree that it’s not safe even though the governor allowed 25% capacity indoors or eating or drinking,” Schomer says.

Other Capitol Hill food and drink venues including Ada’s Technical Books and Café are also speaking out on the shortcoming in the eligibility tiers.

What should these restaurants, bars, and cafes and their workers do? And what happens if you decide the state’s roster of early eligibility for essential workers should apply to you?

“Ultimately, vaccine distribution in Washington is based on the honor system,” a representative for the Washington State Department of Health tells CHS. “We trust people in Washington to accurately self-report the individual factors that determine their vaccine distribution phase.”

The city hopes the mass vaccination site at the Lumen Field Event Center will scale to administer 21,000 vaccinations a day and serve the wider region — if vaccination supplies can keep up (Image: King County)

Saturday, the largest civilian-led vaccination site in the nation will open in the event center at Seattle’s Lumen Field. The massive 190,000-square-foot center is hoped to eventually scale up to serving around 150,000 people a week as officials look to push the city’s vaccination rate to 70%, the level believed to be necessary for Seattle to fully emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

(Source: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office)

Seattle officials say efforts to reach vulnerable residents including communities of color have been successful here with at least 65% of those 65 years old and older in all parts of the city receiving at least one shot of vaccine.

The Lumen center is being readied as the first massive escalation from the early rounds of eligibility — for medical personnel and the most vulnerable including those 65 and older — is set to begin in two weeks.

On March 22nd March 17th, the Seattle mega site and clinics and pharmacies around the city will begin welcoming important new communities to the ranks of vaccine eligibility: essential workers including public transit workers, law enforcement and fire department personnel, and vital grocery, agriculture, and food processing workers.

Operating under the state’s guidelines, the city facility, too, is using the “honor system” to determine eligibility.

“At this time, the City of Seattle has no intention to request proof of employment at any of our clinics, from Rainier Beach, to West Seattle, to the Lumen Field Event Center,” a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells CHS. “In order to reduce barriers to access, we operate on the honor system. If you register for an appointment, we trust that you are indeed eligible, and will vaccinate you.”

County facilities like those in Kent and Auburn have so far asked about eligibility criteria like age and residency in south King County during the registration process but do not require “strict proof of eligibility,” a spokesperson tells CHS.

“We’ve found that people largely respect the honor system. In addition, creating a system with strict requirements can make our sites less accessible to the residents who we are trying to prioritize for vaccination – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color residents who are elderly, speak a language other than English, or are immigrants.”

County officials say those priorities are increasingly being addressed.

“Vaccination appointments at the Lumen Field Event Center will be prioritized for community-based organizations serving Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, older adults, and immigrants and refugees, but DOH-eligible members of the public will be able to register for a vaccination at this site,” the city says. “To ensure this site aligns with the City’s equity goals, the City has opened up registration to community-based and faith-based organizations serving BIPOC communities in Lake City, the Central District, and the Chinatown-International District.”

Hospitals, big chain, and private providers like Swedish, QFC, or Safeway are also ramping up their vaccination efforts and new providers like Costco are joining the fray. These clinics and pharmacies have also been operating on an honor basis.

Officials say existing vaccine supply will initially limit Seattle’s mega site at Lumen to operating two to three days a week, serving approximately 5,000 people weekly. The site is “prepared to significantly ramp up in April and May into the summer,” officials said Wednesday.

Sign ups begin now for appointments at the center, or the city’s other existing sites in West Seattle and Rainier Beach. More city sites are planned. You can sign up for the notification list here.

With the Lumen Field Event Center ready to fire up its massive resources for getting vaccinations out to the rest of the Seattle and King County’s population, Capitol Hill restaurant and cafe workers will face a choice. There are others also left out of the official ranks like custodians, sex workers, retail workers, hair and beauty workers, and more who can make legitimate claims about facing significant risks to serve the public. While the system isn’t exactly designed to solve the problem, it has left room for individuals to sort it out. Come March 22nd March 17th, if you say you are essential, you will be essential.

UPDATE 3/15/21 10:45 AM: The Seattle Restaurant Alliance says “more than 3,500 restaurant and hospitality workers and their supporters” have signed a petition calling for the governor to include food and drink workers in the next phase of vaccine eligibility:

Restaurants can open to 50 percent indoor dining capacity March 22 (which is great news!), but restaurant workers still don’t know when they’ll get access to the vaccine. Today, more than 3,500 restaurant and hospitality workers and their supporters are sending a petition to Gov. Jay Inslee to ask to be included in the next phase alongside other essential workers so they can get the vaccine this week. “If we want vaccine access to be equitable, we must include restaurant and hospitality workers alongside other essential workers. Forty percent of our team members across the state are people of color who have been reporting for work throughout a deadly pandemic,” said Trey Lamont, who owns Jerk Shack in Seattle and is a member of the Seattle Restaurant Alliance Board.

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James T.
James T.
1 month ago

Why are we much slower than NY, CA, and Oregon on vaccine distribution? What’s the deal?

1 month ago
Reply to  James T.

Washington has been slightly faster than the US average and NY, CA, and Oregon in terms of vaccine distribution. Total doses administered per person are 31.3 per 100 in WA vs 30 in NY, 28.4 in CA, and 29.4 in OR.

The real mystery is why Alaska, New Mexico, and the Dakotas are doing so well.

More Than 330 Million Shots Given: Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker (

1 month ago
Reply to  James T.

It’s not the speed but the prioritization and population differences.

You’re probably seeing people with minor health issues getting vaccinated in some of those places (or will shortly), whereas here we’ve decided to not open up soon to people with multiple medical conditions. And have no timeline yet for those with “just” one major medical condition.

1 month ago
Reply to  Nick

Good article in the Seattle Times yesterday about Alaska’s success. They credit it to trusting the regional health administrations rather than keeping things centralized; the state level focuses on distribution of supplies and the vaccines, the regional levels are focused on getting shots in arms.

It also helps that they have a relatively small population. But we could probably learn something…why not establish six or seven regions of the city and stand up vaccination teams focused only on their area? Denser areas get more supplies and people who can do injections assigned, and blast through them.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
1 month ago

It appears to now all be fairly moot to argue about… the federal proclamation is everyone to be given access starting May 1.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
30 days ago
Reply to  jseattle

Of course it will take some time to get everyone through the system.… but the article and much of the discussion is about whether or not restaurant workers are considered to be essential and thus eligible… Which if the state follows through and begins vaccinating everyone with no priority groups, will be a moot argument….

I’m not saying restaurant workers don’t need it – they should have it – dine in restaurants certainly appear to be one of the more risky places to be these days.

On a brighter note – if the mass vaccination site is able to live up to it’s highest goal – which is 20,000 vaccinations/day the entire population of Seattle could be theoretically be vaccinated within around a month (using the J&J single shot) or two using one of the 2 dose vaccines. And considering that it won’t be the sole provider of inoculations, as soon as the supply begins to arrive, we should see the number of vaccinated people rise quite quickly.

30 days ago

There was a segment on the PBS NewsHour last night (interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta of the UW) which praised Seattle’s handling of the pandemic as one of the very best among large cities in the USA. We are more fortunate than most!