Free beer

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The idea of getting vaccinated had been rolling around in the back of Tyler Morsch's mind for weeks. As a 28-year-old, he didn't feel in any particular danger, but he finally decided he should start looking for a Covid-19 vaccination clinic this week. Then he heard the magic words.

"Free beer," he said.

Saturday was the first day that Erie County worked with a local microbrewery to host its Shot and a Chaser program, offering individuals who got their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at Resurgence Brewing Company a free pint glass and coupon for the vaccinated person's drink of choice.

Under normal circumstances, it would be beyond strange for a brewery to host a vaccination clinic in the shadow of 1,000-gallon fermentation tanks, with a brick wall separating a bustling bar service from health care professionals handling syringes filled with the Moderna vaccine. But these are not normal times.

"Given the world we live in right now, it's not so weird," said Ben Kestner, Resurgence Brewing's director of taproom operations.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who was nursing his own drink in one hand while directing vaccine recipients to open table with the other, was happy to see the county's first Shot and a Chaser effort going so well. Before the vaccinations started at 11 a.m., there was a line out the door.

As demand for the Covid-19 vaccine continues to fall, the county is taking a new approach. It's offering free beer.

Programs like the Shot and a Chaser program are among the more creative outreach efforts to try and attract individuals who would otherwise not consider vaccination a priority, especially younger adults. New Jersey and Suffolk County have picked up on the idea, offering free drink vouchers at participating breweries for those who agree to get vaccinated.

Poloncarz said he's happy to see others pick up the idea.

"We're going to do more people today at our first-dose clinics than most of our first-dose clinics in the last week combined," Poloncarz said. "It's been a success. We figured it would be pretty good, but now we're seeing the results."

That's not a very high bar, given that many of the county's first-dose clinics have had less than two dozen people show up. At one site, only one person showed up, Poloncarz said. Comparatively, more than 100 people had been vaccinated at Resurgence by mid-afternoon, including some walk-ups and restaurant patrons who decided to get the vaccine at the spur of the moment.

Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, who was also on site to vaccinate individuals, said she walked from table to table earlier in the day to recruit people who hadn't gotten vaccinated yet. At one table, one woman who hadn't been vaccinated agreed to get a shot after everyone else at the table told her she should.

"There was a lot of social pressure at her table," she said, "so I was able to vaccinate her."

Kestner said some Resurgence employees also agreed to get vaccinated, especially kitchen staff.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein gives a vaccination to Brian Vaughn at the Resurgence Brewery in Buffalo Saturday, May 8, 2021.

County leaders hope the vaccine-for-beer effort will attract younger residents, particularly those in their 20s and 30s who have consistently had the highest rates of positive Covid-19 cases in recent weeks.

Morsch, who had picked up his free beer at the bar after getting vaccinated with a friend, said he got the shot for more peace of mind when visiting his family and traveling. But he acknowledged that among younger people, there's a sense of invincibility that makes them slower to seek out the Covid-19 vaccine.

"This is the best way to do it," he said. "Bring some fun into it."

Since rolling out the program two weeks ago with commitments from Resurgence and Flying Bison, both Buffalo-based breweries, three other county breweries have signed on.

Shot and a Chaser vaccine clinics will be offered at Flying Bison on Wednesday, and Saturday at Steelbound Brewery in Springville and the Thin Man Brewery on Chandler Street in Buffalo. The 12 Gates Brewing Company in Amherst will host the program on May 20. Clinic hours vary by location. Plenty of online appointments are available. Walk-ups are also accepted.

Health experts say these programs might seem like gimmicks, but if they get several thousand more community residents vaccinated, that's a good thing. They don't expect these types of efforts to be enough to get the region to herd immunity, however.

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