Patrick Wappler, manager of Bard Coffee in Portland, says hospitality workers are “the heart of the tourism industry” and need to be protected from COVID-19. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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As a Portland city councilor, Andrew Zarro has oversight in the city’s day-to-day operations.

But Zarro is also the owner of Congress Street coffee shop Little Woodfords and has become a spokesman for city hospitality workers who feel the state government has left them behind in the race to vaccinate against COVID-19.

Gov. Janet Mills’ Moving Maine Forward plan promises to increase the state’s indoor gathering capacity to 50 percent on March 26 and 100 percent May 24. With many hospitality workers, including 32-year-old Zarro, still ineligible for vaccinations they feel their safety is being sacrificed for tourism.

On March 11, President Joe Biden called on state governments nationwide to make all adults eligible for vaccines by May 1, which has generated more hope. But with the plan to increase indoor capacity limits this month, unvaccinated hospitality workers will still be left vulnerable. 

Portland City Councilor Andrew Zarro at his Little Woodfords coffee shop on Congress Street. Zarro believes the state is making a mistake by not prioritizing COVID-19 vaccinations for hospitality workers. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Mills on March 12 said her administration would accelerate Maine’s age-based vaccine schedule in line with Biden’s directive, so that people age 50 and older will be eligible April 1, and all adults will be eligible May 1.

Many young workers, however, will still probably have to wait until after Memorial Day before they can be fully vaccinated.

Zarro addressed the issue directly on his shop’s Instagram page March 9. The post, which received more than 2,000 likes and several supportive comments from Portland businesses, tagged Mills in its caption, and said welcoming more visitors and relaxing COVID-19 protocols before vaccinating the state’s hospitality workers is a “recipe for disaster.”

Moving Maine Forward also exempts Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island residents from needing COVID-19 tests or quarantining before visiting Maine (New Hampshire and Vermont residents were already allowed to do so). 

Prior to the switch to an age-based vaccine distribution plan, Maine had a phased plan that prioritized older residents and frontline health-care workers and would have put other classifications of critical workers, including Postal Service and grocery store employees, in line for vaccinations between February and April. 

Food service workers, however, were relegated to Phase 1C of the old plan, which was expected to be carried out during May and June, and the Moving Maine Forward plan does little to change that.

Zarro wrote that any hospitality worker who contracts the virus now can thank the state’s “reckless and short-sighted policy.” He said vaccinating older people and health-care workers first makes sense, but the state must be “fully ready” before reopening in the way that is planned. Without vaccinating hospitality workers, he does not believe it is.

“It’s easier to make decisions when you sit at a desk and don’t feel the immediate impacts of policies like these,” Zarro’s Instagram statement said. “Try bagging groceries at a grocery store, making food and drinks at a small coffee shop, or being someone who is immunocompromised and has to weigh every decision they make.”

Zarro stood by the comment in an interview last week, and said he feels Maine’s government has been “really good at prioritizing the health of its residents” throughout the pandemic, and that Mills has done a good job so far “for the most part.”

“To just open up at this 11th hour, it feels like, ‘Wait a minute, what was that (sacrifice) for?’” he said.

Little Woodfords, which closed its Forest Avenue location last June, has been closed for indoor service since the beginning of the pandemic; Zarro said it will not change that any time soon. Customers are able to order online and pick up their purchases without entering the store.

He noted this is not the first time recently that a group of the state’s workers have taken issue with not being prioritized for vaccines, since Maine’s teachers were originally also subject to wait until their age made them eligible.

After teacher’s unions advocated for them, he said, the order was changed to allow their immunization regardless of age. President Joe Biden also urged states to vaccinate teachers on March 2.

“Hospitality workers, retail workers, we don’t have unions, we don’t have advocacy workers looking out for us,” he said. “It’s on the workers to speak up.”

Patrick Wappler, manager of Bard Coffee on Middle Street echoed Zarro’s sentiments, and said in addition to vaccinating frontline workers, he thinks immunocompromised people should also be prioritized for shots before COVID-19 protocols are relaxed.

Bard Coffee is not open for indoor service, but customers can get coffee via curbside pickup, or order it through a takeout window on the side of the building.

Wappler said he is looking forward to the busier summer months because serving customers is how he makes his livelihood. Those who do not want to wear masks, he has noticed, tend to be visitors from out of state.

People who feel comfortable taking a risk to cross state borders, he said, are “probably bold enough to antagonize service workers and make their days harder.”

Hospitality workers, he added, are “the heart of the tourism industry” and need to be protected.

“Businesses like ours need a successful summer to survive, too,” he said. “But a real success right now I think would be getting through this safely and protecting our most vulnerable.”

An Instagram page called “Change The Rollout Maine” was launched last week, and describes itself as a group of Mainers “who believe the age-based vaccine schedule is a racist and classist policy that will disproportionately harm marginalized Mainers.”

The page provides links to a petition asking Mills to prioritize high-risk individuals and people with disabilities, as well as articles about food service workers who would like to be prioritized for the vaccine.

Birch Shambaugh, co-owner of Woodford Food & Beverage on Forest Avenue, said he understands deciding who gets vaccinated first is an “incredibly complicated issue.” No matter which decision the governor makes, he added, “somebody is going to feel aggrieved.”

Woodford Food & Beverage has been closed for indoor dining for more than a year. If his staff is not able to be vaccinated before the state further opens for tourism, co-owner Birch Shambaugh said returning to normalcy could be stalled. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Woodford Food & Beverage’s last day of indoor dining service was more than a year ago on March 14, 2020. Shambaugh said he recognizes his restaurant has been “more conservative than many” in town, but he said he places the safety of staff and their families above offering indoor dining.

And, while he said he took some “personal and operational issue” with the state abandoning prioritizing food service and grocery workers in favor of the age-based approach, he understood the reasoning behind the decision, since age is “one of the primary co-determinants of morbidity” for coronavirus.

Maine’s aging population, he acknowledged, adds complexity to the vaccination plan. But with Mills “significantly opening up the state” under Moving Maine Forward, he said, she potentially put frontline workers in an unreasonable, “even more precarious position.”

Shambaugh said he and his staff hope the vaccine landscape will change; until it does, his biggest concern is that the reopening plan will lead to a new wave of sickness in the state. A “lesser outcome,” he said, would be businesses like his having a harder path to full operations.

“We’re all trying to chart the careful course and it feels to us, at least, like perhaps we’re in the 11th hour of this thing,” he said. “It would be a tragic shame for everybody and how much we’ve sacrificed if we blew the deal at this point.”

Ilma Lopez, co-owner of Chaval in the West End, said she will not reopen her restaurant for indoor dining until her entire staff is vaccinated.

What the issue comes down to, Lopez said March 14, is that there are not enough doses of the vaccines in Maine.

“(There’s) not enough vaccines for older people and there’s not enough vaccines for hospitality workers,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair choosing one or the other; I think we need to get more vaccines in our state.”

Lopez said she does not expect herself or her employees to be vaccinated first, but also worries about grocery store workers who have to interact with more people on a daily basis.

Inviting more tourists in, she said, means visitors will also be shopping at the same stores as Maine’s residents.

Lopez said she also worries about people like Chaval’s dishwasher, who is the father of five children and works two jobs. He is in his 30s, and under the age-based vaccine plan would be ineligible for a shot until this summer.

As summer approaches, hiring people to work for her restaurant can be “really scary,” Lopez said, since she doesn’t know where they have been and who they’ve been interacting with.

It sometimes feels like no one cares about little restaurants like hers, she said.

Lopez said she understands the difficulty of the governor’s job, and is not trying to “point out mistakes,” but she wishes Mills would consider the ages of people who need to work “every single day outside of their house.”

“I don’t think she’s making a mistake by vaccinating people by any means, I do like her and I support her decisions,” Lopez said. “It’s just this one in particular. It’s a hard one to swallow.”