‘We’ve Never Stopped Working': NC’s Frontline Workers Wait For COVID-19 Vaccines
Many of North Carolina’s frontline essential workers are frustrated with waiting on the COVID-19 vaccine. An estimated 240,000 educators and school staff are eligible for vaccinations starting Wednesday, but postal workers, grocery store employees, restaurant staff and other workers can’t get appointments until at least March 10.
“I think the grocery industry should have gotten theirs right after the doctors and nurses,” said Loc Tran, who owns Giant Penny, a grocery store northeast of uptown Charlotte.
He said hundreds of customers shop at his store each day and business has seen a 50% bump since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Employees are required to wear masks and gloves but it can be difficult to maintain a safe social distance.
“We don’t know where the customer comes in from, how they practice social distancing," Tran said. "We're there with them, in contact with them — sometimes within a few feet of them.”
The same is true for many Charlotte-area postal workers, said Miriam Bell, president of the local chapter of the American Postal Workers Union. She said post office clerks and mail carriers have to serve each customer — even if that customer is not wearing a mask. Plus, she added, it’s difficult for people to sort and process mail while remaining six feet apart.
Bell said post offices have been slammed by a flood of packages during the coronavirus pandemic. Many workers are logging long hours because of the high volume and staff shortages from COVID-19 outbreaks.
“They are rushing to get the teachers vaccinated which I’m not against at all,” Bell said. “But we’ve never stopped working. We’ve not been able to work remotely, et cetera. We’ve been essentially on the front lines every day.”
North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services on its website defines frontline essential workers as people who must be in-person at their place of work and who work in one of eight “essential sectors": critical manufacturing, education, essential goods, food and agriculture, government and community services, health care and public health, public safety, and transportation. The department lists examples like firefighters, public transit workers, farm workers and meat packing workers.
Though they are eligible beginning March 10, because of limited vaccine supply and high demand, it could take these workers several more weeks to get vaccinated. North Carolina is still working its way through people 65 and older and other groups that are currently eligible.
For James Bazzelle, the pandemic initially meant he had to close his uptown restaurant, Mert’s Heart and Soul, to dine-in customers. When it reopened for dine-in service around May 2020, he said about one-third of his staff didn’t come back.
“Knowing that we had to still come to work, couldn’t work from home — I mean, it’s a big impact on people,” Bazzelle said.
Bazzelle said he was hoping hospitality workers would be eligible for vaccines at the same time as senior citizens because it’s difficult for those who regularly work with the public to “ever feel totally safe.”