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Anxiety among Massachusetts restaurant workers increases as COVID cases rise

View of an empty restaurant. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)
View of an empty restaurant. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

Some Massachusetts workers and restaurant owners are worried about the future as COVID cases surge, driven in part by the omicron variant.

“I really don’t want to see any restaurants closing down ever again, but I don’t want to see people sick either,” said Keith Bowen, who works as a chef at Our Fathers in Allston. “There must be some kind of reasonable balance.”

Bowen landed this job after he was laid off by another restaurant last year, when the pandemic slowed down their business. It’s one of many obstacles restaurants have faced during the pandemic.

“There has not been a moment of stability throughout this entire year,” said Bessie King, co-owner of Villa Mexico Cafe in Boston’s financial district, and a board member of the group Massachusetts Restaurants United.

She says the spike in COVID cases adds to the challenges restaurants are already facing right now, including a severe shortage of workers and rising food prices.

“If it is getting more expensive for a family to shop at the supermarket, just imagine how much more expensive it is for us to pay, even if it’s commercial prices,” King said.

King has temporarily closed her restaurant again due to a lack of customers, and expressed frustration that more people are not taking steps that could slow the pandemic, like wearing masks.

“As long as we continue with this roller coaster of ‘I’m going to do what I want to do because it’s best for me,’ then COVID is not going to go away,” she said. “We need to finally act like a community.”

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu introduced a new vaccine mandate this week for restaurant patrons — and customers at some other indoor venues such as gyms. Several other cities and towns are considering similar measures.

But some restaurant workers say they worry about how they will enforce a new vaccine mandate without losing customers.

“Maybe people might walk away or something,” said Shay Simmons, a manager at Jamaica Mi Hungry in Allston. “Or, you know, ‘Oh I left my vaccination card today,’ and now they have food sitting here.

During the pandemic, it has often fallen to workers to enforce policies such as mask mandates, and customers have sometimes reacted angrily. But Simmons says she plans to stick to the new vaccination rules when they take effect on Jan. 15.

“I’m just gonna make sure that I follow the guidelines,” she said, “so that we can continue to keep our business running.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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