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Restaurants offer $50 (and cheap beer!) to workers who get COVID vaccine

restaurant worker at a cash register
Photo by Mariah Solomon on Unsplash

For restaurant and retail workers, the Rare Bird in Traverse City was offering a pretty good deal last Monday: come get your COVID vaccine, and not only are you protected from the virus that’s killed some 3.8 million globally, they’ll throw in a $50 Visa gift card, plus $1 draft beers and $3 cocktails.

Hey, if it works, it works, is Justin Winslow’s attitude. “People respond to financial incentives,” said Winslow, the president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. “Should that be necessary? You could certainly make the argument that maybe not. But this is where we find ourselves. And the more shots in arms, I think the better shot this industry has to remain open and stay open and have a projection to the public that it's going to be safe for anyone to come back.”

The Traverse City event is just one of several vaccine clinics Michigan’s restaurant and hospitality employers have been holding the last few weeks, including ones in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and another scheduled for Tuesday at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Kalamazoo. (In Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s offered the first 100 industry workers a $50 Visa gift card, and a free sandwich.) So far, about 300 workers have come out.

The events come as the industry is finally back to full capacity and desperate to take advantage of pent-up demand. And while staffing shortages are their biggest concern, low vaccination rates among the predominantly younger workers means greater risk of staff outbreaks.

“I think this industry skews younger than pretty much any other industry, and it has been a little bit harder to get those who are younger to get the vaccine,” Winslow said. "So anything we can do to help incentivize that side of the population, that's great for the public. And I think that's safer for them as well."

Only 37% of teens 16-19 and 20-somethings have had at least one COVID shot in Michigan, and closer to 30% of residents in those age groups are fully vaccinated. But for now, it doesn’t seem to be a major problem for restaurants and bars: there are currently only five ongoing outbreaks associated with restaurant workers, according to state data.

And so far, employers like Zingerman’s aren’t going so far as to require workers get vaccinated. But they are asking staff to “document” if they are fully vaccinated and want to remove their masks at work.

“Staff are strongly encouraged to get a vaccination and we are sharing information regularly about vaccination sites in Ann Arbor and surrounding communities,” a Zingerman’s spokesperson said via email. “...Managers are being urged to be flexible with scheduling if individuals need time off in order to get their vaccines or to return to work after a vaccine. If staff are not vaccinated we will comply with all safety requirements regarding masking and social distancing, etc.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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