Serving Routt County: Frontline restaurant workers finally receive their vaccines

Jessica Beck, who works as a server at Salt & Lime in downtown Steamboat Springs, is among the many frontline restaurant workers to get vaccinated for COVID-19 after they became eligible last week. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Deb Holloway and her staff sat in the lobby of T Bar at Steamboat and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

After a year of quarantines, shutdowns, COVID-19 exposure and not being able to socialize without masks, the darkness finally felt like it was being lifted. Holloway and the T Bar staff have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a one-dose shot offered at Community Pharmacy at Steamboat Springs.

If Holloway were to pick two words to describe the feeling she felt Thursday evening after watching her restaurant staff be vaccinated, the words would be palpable relief.

“We all gathered together and just sat in gratitude for getting everyone vaccinated,” Holloway said. “The relief and just having survived to this point where now we’re all vaccinated makes the horizon seem much brighter.”

Holloway and the T Bar staff were among Colorado’s 1B.4 vaccination phase, which includes food service workers.

Jessica Beck, who works as a server at Salt & Lime in downtown Steamboat Springs, delivers food to Joey and Jennifer Hall, who were visiting Steamboat Springs from Texas. Beck is among the many frontline restaurant workers who recently got vaccinated for COVID-19. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Light at the end of the tunnel

For Jessica Beck, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine signified a return to normalcy. She could attend work without worry of contracting COVID-19 and now has comfort that Salt & Lime, where she works as a server, will likely not have to close if COVID-19 cases were to rise again in Routt County.

“The service industry has been shut down in Steamboat twice, so we’ve been kind of just hanging on as hard as we can, and then when the vaccine became eligible to us, our whole restaurant was so proud,” Beck said. “Everyone was just so excited just to be able to get the vaccine.”

Beck said she and other frontline food service workers have “held on for dear life,” as restaurants around Routt County have been forced to lay off staff and permanently close their doors due to drops in business.

“I’ve had so many people thank me for what I do, and now, I can tell people I was vaccinated, and they’re so excited for me,” Beck said. “I had regulars that I hadn’t seen in a year, and they finally got vaccinated and came in to see the restaurant.”

For Angela Sherwood, human resources manager for Rex’s Family of Restaurants, working with local pharmacies to get her staff vaccinated felt like the most important job she could be doing.

“Our staff members have been working so hard at staying home and wearing their masks and doing everything they can to keep their co-workers and guests safe,” Sherwood said. “We’ve been doing our best for them, but it’s really cool to have them all feeling better. You can just feel that there’s a weight that’s been lifted from their shoulders.”

Katie Peyser, a server at Mambo’s, said she’s experienced high levels of anxiety throughout the past year — as her restaurant has opened and closed multiple times, and she is required to follow lengthy COVID-19 mitigation protocols each day.

“It’s been really tough and just having the vaccine available to us is a light at the end of the tunnel so to speak,” Peyser said. “There’s been so much emotion and anxiety and to know that you’re taking the next step towards getting back to normal is very powerful. I think I probably slept the best last night that I’ve slept in a year.”

On the frontlines

By its nature as a resort town, Steamboat Springs relies heavily on restaurants and other service workers to carry its tourism-based economy.

“The restaurant industry employs a tremendous amount of people in our community,” said Steamboat Springs Chamber CEO Kara Stoller. “They’re one of the largest employers in terms of industry in our county.”

Servers also are some of the only workers who work with customers not wearing masks during the pandemic, which can be an added source of anxiety and risk, many servers said.

“It’s just been a rough year, and I think our community has done a good job of remaining a community and working together, but we’re a tourist town, and there are difficulties with states having different rules and different stipulations about masks and public health measures,” said Ayla Gedge, a server at Mambo’s. “I’m excited to be on the same page as my guests again.”

Rex Brice, owner of the Rex’s Family of Restaurants, said in addition to concerns about catching COVID-19 while at work, restaurant workers have had to deal with financial anxieties when restaurants had to move to takeout only at times and limit capacity at others.

“It’s been a really tough year for the restaurant industry, not just financially, but there are other stressors that go along with it,” Brice said. “We’re just seeing a lot of mental fatigue in our people in dealing with this, and I don’t think that’s going to go away quickly.”

In addition to taking orders and delivering food and drinks, servers have been required to take on additional roles this year: enforcing COVID-19 rules and sometimes being the first face for visitors coming to Steamboat, often from places with more relaxed rules.

“It was confusing and scary for a while, but it got to the point where you have to work to survive, and this was my career,” Gedge said. “A lot of people from out of state took out the mask regulations on us, and we would just have to say we don’t have a choice and these are the rules.”

All servers interviewed said the majority of customers were compliant with mask mandates, but some were not, and it was restaurant workers who often had to enforce the rules.

“We had one written complaint from guests who said servers were too abrupt in their mask enforcement,” Holloway said. “We told them that these are our explicit rules, and we demanded cooperation, and if they don’t want to cooperate, they were free to go elsewhere.”

Restaurant workers also said many customers tipped more money and treated servers with more kindness and respect than they had in years past.

“This has been the most pleasant year I’ve ever served in 27 years — everyone is tipping better and being nicer than ever,” Beck said.

Vaccinating a seasonal staff force

Because Steamboat is a resort town, much of its workforce is seasonal and leaves either permanently or for a vacation after Steamboat Resort closes in the spring, Stoller said.

To combat this, restaurants have tried to get their workforce vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as it only requires one shot, compared to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which both require two shots about a month apart.

“From a pharmacy perspective, the Johnson & Johnson made a lot of sense because there’s less paperwork and less backlog,” said Kelli Johnson, pharmacy manager of the Community Pharmacy at Steamboat Springs. “We wanted to help the most amount of people possible in the shortest amount of time because people do leave.”

Wendy Tucciarone, founder/partner at Mountain Tap Brewery, said most of their workforce is leaving after the resort closes, and she is working with Routt County Public Health and Environment to ensure their employees can receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“The challenge is that the second dose will come while a lot of them are away,” Tucciarone said, adding that her staff members are still excited to receive any vaccine available. “Everyone was super excited, it’s a great opportunity, and we feel honored that restaurant workers were included.”

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