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Prison, restaurant workers hoping to be next in line for COVID-19 vaccine

The unions representing both groups are pushing state leaders to prioritize these workers in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The COVID-19 vaccine has finally arrived in Ohio.

This week, health care workers and staff and residents in long-term care facilities were among the first to receive them.

They’re among those listed in Phase 1A of Gov. Mike DeWine’s guidelines on the rollout of the vaccine distribution.

The question is – who comes next?

Several groups are clamoring for that opportunity, including those who work in some of Ohio’s hot spots – prisons.

“Working in a prison, No. 1, is dangerous to start with, but compound it with a virus as dangerous as COVID-19, and it has become deadly for so many of our members and so many of the people incarcerated within,” said Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.

The union represents roughly 30,000 Ohioans, including those working in the state prison system.

Since the pandemic began, the Ohio Dept. of Rehabilitation and Correction reports eight staffers have died of COVID-19 along with more than 100 inmates.

Thousand of others have tested positive, including ODRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith.

That’s why Mabe wants prisons to be next on the list for vaccine distribution.

“All of our people are not locked up inside the prison system with inmates,” Mabe said. “They’re coming back to their communities, back to their families, increasing spread, and the large-scale spread we’ve had amongst incarcerated felons within the system, you have to have some availability to control and protect those individuals, too, because it does contribute to the people working there, coming back home, going out to the communities, and furthering spread.”

Plus, as Mabe points out, the inmates themselves deserve to be protected while being rehabilitated.

“It’s not a fact of lock them up and throw away the key,” he said “These are human beings. They have families on the street.”

10TV reached out to Gov. DeWine’s office to ask about the groups that would be included in Phase 1B. A spokesman declined to comments, saying that guidance is still in the works.

Another group hoping to be included in that next phase is restaurant workers.

“Many of them have just had to live constantly worried about their jobs, first of all,” said John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.

Beyond the financial fears, some may worry about being exposed on the job, even though Barker points out that restaurants have taken many steps to ensure safety.

But the workers don’t have the luxury of working from home or sitting behind a desk. They must interact with the public to do their jobs.

“We think that puts them in the essential worker category, meaning that they have to be out there, particularly grocery and restaurants because people have to eat,” Barker said. “We’ve just asked for restaurant workers to be in there because, if we don’t, the restaurants are going to continue to languish, and we’re going to continue to have these furloughs, and, quite honestly, we need to get restaurants back as soon as it’s reasonably possible, to get restaurants back and be able to feel good about offering sit-down service and back to whatever normal is going to be.”

Barker says the next topic to be addressed is whether restaurants should be able to require workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently decided it is okay for employers to require their employees to get the vaccine.

So the ORA will now consider what guidance to offer its members on having such a requirement.