Citi Field is slated to open Wednesday as a COVID-19 vaccination site, with half of slots set aside for Queens residents and the other half for restaurant and food delivery workers and taxi drivers.
But the news, delivered Monday by Mayor Bill de Blasio, was quickly followed by frustration for some delivery workers who found themselves locked out — and fear from restaurant employees unable to secure a slot before city eateries reopen for limited indoor dining Friday.
“People are motivated to get the shot,” Sergio Ajche, a food delivery worker in Brooklyn and member of Los Deliveristas Unidos.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio opened the door to vaccines for food workers last week after THE CITY asked why they weren’t eligible for shots as the reopening of indoor dining neared.
But Ajche tried and failed to get an appointment at the Citi Field site when he tried Monday evening. The system declined him because he does not have a Queens address, he said, even though half the slots are available to any food service or taxi worker with a city address.
Food worker appointments at the home of the Mets are being arranged through the Yemeni American Merchant Association, while the city Taxi & Limousine Commission is assisting drivers, Avery Cohen, a City Hall spokesperson, told THE CITY.
Food industry workers can prove their eligibility at any city-run site by providing a pay stub or a letter from an employer, or they can self-attest to their employment in a letter.
In an interview on NY1 Monday night, de Blasio stressed the need for gatekeeping at the Citi Field vaccine site: “We’re going to have very clear measures to make sure folks who show up and say they’re a Queens resident, or they’re a TLC driver, or a food service worker, that they really are.”
Ligia Guallpa of the Workers Justice Project, which represents the deliveristas, said that Ajche is just one of many workers frozen out of vaccination appointments.
“There is a lot of frustration and anger with how the government keeps creating these red tapes, and is not willing to bend the bureaucracy in order to serve the most essential workers who can’t, or are having trouble with, navigating a system that hasn’t worked for them before,” she said.
“Complicated online systems of registration literally prevent and discourage workers from getting vaccinated, and also put workers at risk of losing their own jobs or having to lose income,” she said.
New York City’s restaurant industry is largely composed of immigrants, making up more than 60% of the workforce, according to a report from State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
When Cuomo announced last Tuesday that restaurant workers will be eligible for the vaccine, Daicy Torres began “obsessively” checking for available appointments.
Torres, who works at one of her family’s restaurants, Angelo’s Pizza in Maspeth, Queens, was able to get an appointment at a Long Island City high school for herself, her mother, two employees and one of their wives, an employee at a Brooklyn eatery.
Torres already had some experience in booking appointments, after helping out her grandparents.
She has since been trying to get appointments for the rest of her employees and “really hoped the Citi Field location would be as easy.”
She tried all day Monday to book appointments online and through the city’s vaccination hotline, with no luck.
“Where I work, my staff, the staff at our other restaurant, it’s mostly Mexican/Latino. There’s no way they’d be able to navigate this on their own,” she said.
Torres lives near Elmhurst Hospital and endured a bout of COVID-19 last spring. Now she’s scrambling to keep her employees healthy.
“For now, I’m stuck spending whatever free time I have not taking care of customers, glued to my phone, trying to secure appointments for my staff,” she said.
Strikeout at Yankee Stadium
Even notching an appointment is not enough for some food industry workers, who found themselves turned away from the state’s Yankee Stadium vaccination center even after getting the all-clear from Cuomo and de Blasio.
Ayala Donchin, who runs Evelyn’s Kitchen, a cafe in East Harlem, snagged vaccination appointments for four of her employees at Yankee Stadium, a state-run site that opened Friday to Bronx residents only.
All four of her employees are Spanish-speaking Bronx residents, had employment verification letters and appointment confirmation letters in hand for their appointments.
Yet staff at the Yankee Stadium site sent them home, she said, stating that they were not eligible and that their vaccination appointment would not be honored.
“Being turned away at the door was embarrassing for them,” Donchin told THE CITY. “They felt they had done something wrong, even though they had all the paperwork needed and the appointment confirmation.”
Donchin spoke to a supervisor at the site and her employees were asked to return to Yankee Stadium the following day for their vaccination.
“What concerns me and I think is important for those in charge to consider is that it shouldn’t take someone being an advocate and navigating the system to make things right. How many people got turned away last week and will never go back?” she added.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office called the incident a “misunderstanding,” and assured THE CITY that restaurant workers were getting vaccinated at Yankee Stadium.