No vaccines and no masks? Houston restaurant and grocery workers worry about their safety

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- For more than a year now, the daily routine at Sonoma Wine Bar involves masking up and wiping down.

With the statewide mask mandate going away next week, owner Farrah Cauley is now more worried about the health of her employees.

"It's scary, we get some guests that believe it or don't believe it," she said, adding that with a slower business, it's challenging to turn away any potential customer.

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Cauley and her staff believe restaurant workers should be considered a priority when it comes to administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

"It needs to be people working in restaurants," she said. "[Those] that have been working in restaurants, since this has happened, need to be prioritized to get vaccinated. I think our guests would feel much more comfortable knowing those that people who are taking care of them are vaccinated."

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But restaurant, hospitality, and grocery store workers have not been prioritized, despite having jobs where they can't work from home.

"It's very scary, because I've been working the pandemic and we see thousands of people a day," said Sarah Frizzell, a customer service representative at a large grocery store chain. She, too, wants a vaccine.

"I really wish the government would prioritize the grocery workers because people do need to eat," she said. "If we weren't there, people wouldn't have groceries."

So far, however, the COVID-19 vaccine distribution process is focused on the elderly and those with chronic conditions.

Until this week, frontline health care workers were the only profession eligible for a vaccine. On Wednesday, teachers and child care workers were added to the list of those eligible. No other professions are included.

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Stephen Williams, the director of the Houston Health Department, who is also on the State of Texas' expert vaccine panel, told Eyewitness News that notion is unlikely to change.

"We haven't had a meeting since the governor's announcement [Tuesday]," said Williams, referring to the rollback of the mask order. "I'm sure that will come up in the discussion on Monday, but basically, our strategy is to focus on more people with severe consequences if they got sick."

Restaurant and grocery store workers said they worry that increased numbers of people without masks will put them at risk without access to vaccinations, and relief doesn't seem right on the horizon.

"We have a ways to go in terms of getting fully vaccinated," said Shreela Sharma, a professor of epidemiology at UT Public Health. "Do we need 100% vaccinated? No, but we need at least 70% vaccinated, and we're at 6% to 7% vaccination."

Meanwhile, federal authorities said vaccine availability is expanding, and by May, every American who wants a vaccine will be able to get one. But for Frizzell, that's just not soon enough.

"I just think it's unfair because we're on the front lines every day, and everyone needs groceries, so in order for us to be safe we need to get the vaccine," she said.

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