Restaurant work has never been easy. If you don’t like working long hours on your feet, at night and on weekends and holidays when other people are relaxing, while dealing with customers who expect prompt, cheerful service no matter what else is going on in the world, it’s probably not the job for you.

But during the COVID pandemic, it’s become more than just a tough job. It’s also an activity that can make you and the members of your household seriously ill. That’s too much to ask from service workers, and it’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can to minimize the risk. The best way to do that will be considered Monday by the Portland City Council.

Among other COVID safety measures, the council will consider a proof of vaccine requirement for certain indoor spaces, including restaurants. The mandate has been proposed by some of the city’s restaurant owners, citing concern about the health of their employees and their ability to keep their doors open this winter as the omicron variant circulates. Many have signed a petition that started with an Eventide Oyster Co. bartender’s email to her bosses.

It may be a difficult decision for the council because not every business or every hospitality worker is on board. But it’s the right thing to do, and the time to act is now.

Portland would be the first Maine municipality to take this step, but in the hub of the state’s restaurant scene, the city’s leadership would make a big difference statewide.

If councilors are looking for a precedent, they can go back to the ban on indoor smoking that was imposed two decades ago. At the time, some restaurateurs wanted to serve customers who smoked, and smokers claimed that they should be allowed to, since they were hurting only themselves.

But lawmakers listened to the evidence that secondhand smoke also hurt the people who worked in smoky environments, even if they did not choose to smoke themselves. With COVID, the risk is even greater, because nonsmoking restaurant workers could not bring secondhand smoke home to sicken other family members.

And the risk of catching COVID in an enclosed restaurant is smaller for a customer  than it is for a server, who, every shift, comes into contact with dozens of people who are each in contact with dozens of others, any of whom may be infected.

The city is also considering a mask mandate for public-facing indoor spaces – which is also a good idea – but masks don’t offer much protection in an environment where people are eating and drinking. Proof of vaccine, however, would.

It’s important to stress that vaccines work and requiring them is no hardship. Vaccinated people are five times less likely to be infected with COVID than are unvaccinated people, and breakthrough cases in vaccinated people are usually milder than infections in the unvaccinated.

Some Portland restaurants have imposed their own proof of vaccine requirement, and they should be applauded for the concern they have demonstrated for their own customers and staff. But it’s understandable why others have not followed suit: These measures are much easier to enforce when everyone is operating under the same rules.

Restaurants may lose some business to people who insist on refusing to be vaccinated, but there’s another side to that equation. People who used to enjoy eating out are staying home now because they don’t feel safe in a dining room full of strangers.

Knowing that everyone has been vaccinated could be what it takes to get them back into restaurants. The Portland council should think about those diners as well as the restaurant workers and require vaccines.


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