SOUTHINGTON — Long and irregular hours have always made it difficult for servers, chefs and bartenders to find time off, so public health officials designed a vaccine clinic at Smokin’ With Chris that would bring the shot to them.
“A lot of them work many, many hours and when they walk out of here, they’re just too tired to do it,” said Chris Conlon, owner of Smokin’ With Chris. He partnered with Hartford Healthcare to administer the doses and the Plainville-Southington Regional Health District to help get the word out to other restaurants.
With no registration required, restaurant workers and the public alike could stop in on Monday to get the shot and have a free meal during the 15 minute observation period after getting vaccinated. Conlon also gave away $10 gift cards to his restaurant and participants also received gift cards to Mister B’s Jerky Co. in Southington.
“A lot of the restaurants are closed on Mondays, so we figured it would be a nice way to give back. We have a nice buffet for anybody that comes in, along with a free beer or a glass of wine,” Conlon said.
Joe Barbato, a bartender at Smokin’ With Chris, came in to get his shot and help serve the buffet and drinks on his day off and said going through the process of getting vaccinated was simple and painless. While Conlon said he’d be the first to let his employees take a day off to get the shot, Barbato said he has friends who work at other restaurants who’d have difficulty taking a sick day, let alone take time off to get a vaccine.
“I obviously want to do anything I can to help my fellow restaurant employees who can’t take days off or time off. Restaurants are so understaffed now that it’s hard to get time off in a busy restaurant, so to come in on an off day and help out was important,” he said.
Local Health Director Shane Lockwood said public health officials have been trying to make inroads with populations which have been lagging behind the general public in vaccination rates by bringing clinics to where they are. Restaurant workers in particular have been difficult to reach because they’re often working during the times clinics have been held.
“A lot of it has to do with when you look at hours of clinics, hours of clinics might not have worked with the hours that restaurant workers work. And some of them probably feel more at home coming to a fellow restaurant than they do at some big, nameless clinic,” he said.
To publicize the clinic, Lockwood sent notifications to the approximately 600 food service establishments they license and Conlon reached out to the Connecticut Restaurant Association and local businesses to let them know to tell their workers to stop in.
“This has become sort of a model for what we want to do throughout our system,” she said. ” … We’re trying to make it as streamlined as possible for the public.”
For Steve Dow, owner of Dow Gutters, being able to get the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was another reason to get his shot on Monday. As a self-employed contractor, being able to quickly stop in and not have to worry about a second appointment made it easier to fit into his schedule. Attendees had the choice of vaccines manufactured by either Pfizer or Johnson and Johnson.
“I’m self employed, so sometimes it’s easy to get a shot and sometimes it’s really impossible. You know, when you’re dedicated to your customers you only have so much time in the day from doing jobs in the day and then coming home and making phone calls and then going back out and doing estimates ... So the one and done for me, the Johnson was totally worth it and I’m glad to move on,” he said.
If the targeted approach works in bringing in restaurant workers, Lockwood said they’ll likely try to hold future clinics at other restaurants in the Plainville, Southington and Middlefield area. Lockwood also mentioned the clinic to the state Department of Public Health during a call last week and will share their results to see if similar clinics could work across Connecticut.
“If this is successful, certainly it’s something we could replicate not just here. The state Department of Public Health is interested to see how this goes, like the lessons learned of what we did right and what we did wrong and maybe it’s something that they could do elsewhere in the state,” Lockwood said.
Kelly Toth, systems director for community health with Hartford HealthCare, said Smokin’ With Chris was the first restaurant on their list of establishments to reach out to about hosting the clinic due to its support of healthcare workers early in the pandemic. The restaurant served free meals to their staff operating drive-through testing sites.
Being able to keep the process quick and simple for participants is important to future clinics and she believes Monday’s clinic could inform the future of HHC’s vaccination efforts.
“This has become sort of a model for what we want to do throughout our system,” Toth said. “ … We’re trying to make it as streamlined as possible for the public.”