MILWAUKEE — Local restaurant workers say they are thrilled and relieved to be eligible for the vaccine, after state health authorities made the change Friday.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health Services said they added the eligibility "due to the increased supply of vaccine and in recognition of the public-facing role of restaurant workers."
All his life Cesar Lopez has worked at his family's restaurant Cielito Lindo on 2nd Street and National Avenue, and he says this year has been tough.
"Every day you turn on the TV and see people getting sick," Lopez said. "And it's something that you come to work and it’s on your mind, but you just try to not think about and keep working."
Soon he may not have to worry as much. He said he wants to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as he can.
Down the street at La Casa De Alberto, server Brenda Soriano hopes to get her shot on Tuesday.
"I'm relieved. I feel I'm going to be safer around people," Soriano said.
Wisconsin Restaurant Association President and CEO Kristine Hillmer says she's been working with state authorities to help get restaurant workers eligible for months.
"The restaurant industry is the hardest one hit, the first to be shut down," Hillmer said. "Really, and when you think of how broad the restaurant industry is, to not have them eligible when they are still serving people and trying to be safe and so on, it really is a boost that they are going to be able to get the vaccine now."
Hillmer said restaurant workers make up 9 percent of the state's economy. She said even with more vaccinations, restaurants will still keep safety practices such as masks and distancing in place.
A recent survey from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association found 29 percent of operators had to lay off or furlough some employees in December or January. About one-third of operators reported they believe it will take 7 to 12 months before things go back to normal, and 12 percent reported business will never return to pre-pandemic levels.
Still, Lopez and Soriano hope better business will soon be on the way.
"We’ll see how business gets once everyone starts getting their vaccines and going out," Lopez said. "And hopefully it gets better for everyone."
"They hope that when everybody gets vaccinated and we [can] take off our masks and smile again," Soriano said. "They always tell us they never forget our smiles."