Haleigh Guillory finally received her first COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, three days before starting a new job at Brasserie Mon Chou Chou at the Pearl.

The 31-year-old bartender whose résumé includes successful work stints at the Culinary Institute of America, Sternewirth Tavern at the Hotel Emma, and other premier dining and cocktail destinations in the city, was one of more than 300 San Antonio service workers vaccinated last week, with a second inoculation to follow on May 6.

The service workers weren’t vaccinated at the Alamodome, Wonderland Mall, or either of the two WellMed vaccination sites. Waitstaff, bartenders, front-of-house hosts, line cooks, and others queued up between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. at Burleson Yard Beer Garden on the city’s near East Side, a location made available for free by owner Lee Beekly.

“It was our pleasure and quite humbling to be a small part of the drive,” Beekly said. “I’d do it again 10 times if the opportunity comes, with the hope that we can put an end to this pandemic sooner than later.”

The event was organized by the nonprofit Saint City Culinary Foundation as an outreach within its Heard program, which focuses on wellness and mental health, addressing substance abuse, and other challenges commonly experienced by service industry professionals. More than 20 industry workers and health care professionals volunteered their time. Gold Coffee, Con Huevos!, and Bandit BBQ kept everyone fueled.

Haleigh Guillory received her first COVID-19 vaccine before starting her new job Saturday at Mon Chou Chou. Guillory was one of more than 300 San Antonio service workers vaccinated last week at Burleson Yard Beer Garden.
Haleigh Guillory received her first COVID-19 vaccine before starting her new job Saturday at Mon Chou Chou. Guillory was one of more than 300 San Antonio service workers vaccinated last week at Burleson Yard Beer Garden. Credit: Courtesy / Haleigh Guillory, Dorcal Distillery

Such events always strike me as worth coverage: industry workers work taxing hours for low base wages, often without insurance benefits or job security, yet show an almost unmatched capacity for helping one another in times of need. Guillory and all of the dozen or so industry professionals I spoke with last week lost employment at the outset of the pandemic and have struggled since, some returning to work last summer only to lose their jobs again when the virus spiked. Many have yet to find positions comparable in responsibility and pay to those they lost.

“I honestly know very few people who have the same job they had before the pandemic,” Guillory said, nursing a sore arm the evening after her inoculation. “We had the original shutdown, then a partial reopening, and then a kind of false alarm situation in the summer. A lot of people concluded they would have to find a job in another industry to take care of their families and regain some stability in their lives.”

The Burleson Yard vaccine pop-up was born out of an unexpected opportunity to secure a supply of the Pfizer vaccine from a generous Lubbock pharmacist (who declined to be named or interviewed) who had connected with friends in Southtown. The opportunity quickly evolved into a vaccine drive for local service industry workers, often cited as key to the city’s economy and culture, yet profoundly impacted by the pandemic and then largely overlooked.

“For 14 years prior to starting the foundation, I worked in health care, so I reached out to friends in that industry and recruited some nurses to administer the vaccines and watch everyone afterwards to make sure no one experienced any complications,” said Joel Rivas, Sant City’s founder. “My wife Allysse is a social media professional, so we just relied on word of mouth and social media to get the word out that we would be doing this today.”

I was exploring the gap between supply and demand for the vaccine locally and heard about the event from a friend, Hugh Daschbach, Saint City’s chief operating officer, who introduced me to Guillory, a former colleague from his days as the culinary concierge at the Hotel Emma.

“We consider service industry professionals to be front-line workers, so it was important for Heard to create an opportunity that prioritized their health and well-being,” Daschbach said. “Thursday’s clinic accomplished that.”

Guillory was one of several people I spoke with who said teachers and service industry professionals share a common disappointment that they were not treated as essential workers given early access to vaccines, even as people clamored for schools, restaurants, bars, cafes, and other venues to open, leaving adult employees highly vulnerable to infection.

“Most establishments in San Antonio are owned by people with insurance who don’t offer insurance for their employees, and it adds insult to injury when people are demanding everyone to reopen and for us to come back to work without any protection,” Guillory said. “I don’t understand why we were not valued members of our community like others. I wonder if people don’t regard us as skilled workers, or just dismiss us as young people. Hospitality is a big industry in San Antonio, but people don’t appreciate the important role we play in the economy.”

For service industry workers who were unaware of Thursday’s event at Burleson Yard, the Texas Restaurant Association in partnership with University Health System will hold a vaccine drive at Wonderland Mall on April 27 and 28, from 8 a.m. to 7:45 p.m., with 3,000 doses available each day. Click here to register for the Texas Hospitality Worker Vaccine Drive and to learn more about the local event in the industry group’s statewide drive.

For individuals who simply want to help service industry professionals, you can make an online tax-deductible donation to the Saint City Culinary Foundation.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.