In St. Petersburg, Fla., Pete Boland spent last weekend trying to secure scarce slots for his 60 employees to get tested for covid-19. On Friday night, he had shut down his popular downtown restaurant, the Galley, after he learned several workers tested positive for the virus.
When it became clear that there was a problem — which happened to be in the middle of dinner service — he went from table to table, informing guests that it was last call and that the restaurant would be closing for safety reasons. “We weren’t trying to cover anything up,” he says.
In Arizona, the Maggiore restaurant group has hired a private doctor to test all of its employees following the closure of the Arcadia location of the brunch spot Hash Kitchen last Thursday after someone in the restaurant found out they contracted the virus, a spokeswoman says.
From Phoenix to Myrtle Beach, Houston to Orlando, restaurants — most of which were only recently given the go-ahead to welcome diners back in their doors — are closing again. This time, it’s not because owners fear that someone in their midst might catch the coronavirus — it’s because they know that they already have.
The closures, typically announced on social media, come at the discretion of restaurant owners. Many states and localities do not require restaurants where employees have tested positive to shutter. What steps owners take when faced with a sick employee — whether it’s deep cleaning the entire space, informing customers or testing other staffers — are largely up to them.
Coronavirus cases continue to climb in many areas, even where restaurants are opening for business, and that means owners already reeling from months of lost business and pivoting from takeout-only to socially distanced service are facing fresh logistical crises. Meanwhile, many restaurant workers are fearful of exposure — and many customers are confused.
Erica Knight, the spokeswoman for Hash Kitchen, says the owners decided of their own accord to temporarily close, alert customers on social media, and take other precautions, such as hiring a deep-cleaning service called Virus Vaporizer for weekly disinfecting. Even though those measures weren’t required, she says, the company decided to go above and beyond.
“It’s a respected group, and they’re trying to figure out how to set an example without much direction from government,” she says. “It’s the Wild West out here.”
Similarly, Boland said he consulted sources that included the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, but ultimately, he had to decide how to handle sick employees himself, along with his staff. “There is no playbook,” he said.
Paying for testing and cleaning — not to mention lost business — means another financial hit in an industry that’s already suffering. Both restaurants are paying their salaried workers while they’re closed.
Even after a restaurant deals with a sick employee or two, there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again. “You have to figure, until there is a vaccine or a cure, it will happen to businesses and to many more than once,” says Robert Shimberg, who heads the covid-19 task force for the law firm Hill Ward Henderson and has been advising restaurants and other businesses on how to handle outbreaks.
Boland says he knows some people will see his restaurant’s temporary closure as evidence he opened too soon. But he has been eager to see his industry flourish again, and he says the alternative — shutting it for the foreseeable future, leaving people out of work — isn’t a good solution.
“There’s a lot of ‘I told you so,’ which is unfortunate. It’s like people were rooting for something to prove this wrong,” he says of the initial reopening last month.
News of outbreaks has left many restaurant workers nervous, fearing both the prospect of catching the virus from a co-worker and lost wages and tips if their employer shuts down. John deBary, the co-founder and board president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, says restaurant reopenings have created opportunities for workers to again make a paycheck, but they may be going back to risky workplaces.
“In a way, it’s harder than when things were shut down,” he says. “You’re given this choice, and it’s an impossible choice.”
Sally Abrahamson, a partner with the law firm Outten & Golden who has represented restaurant workers in a variety of lawsuits, says restaurant workers who rely on tips are more likely to return to work, even if they don’t feel safe. “People living on sub-minimum wages — that doesn’t support people making decisions that are healthy for themselves and their families.”
While plenty of restaurant owners are going above and beyond the minimum requirements after a covid-19 diagnosis on their staff, workers suspect not all of them will be as forthcoming. Relying on virtuous ownership, deBary says, isn’t always a good bet. Some restaurants are opening more carefully than others, he notes. “Some are opening with no guidelines and physical distancing halfheartedly applied,” he said. “What’s the mechanism to protect workers? There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, and people are figuring it out as they go along.”
Meanwhile, many customers have mixed feelings: Some say hearing that a restaurant has temporarily closed to address a problem makes them feel more confident about how seriously establishments are taking safety, while others see it as more evidence that it’s too soon to go back to dining in restaurants.
Clayton Carlson, a financial analyst in Harrisburg, Pa., has been cautious about returning to restaurants. He recently sat inside a diner for the first time in months, and says seeing news about sick workers doesn’t clarify anything. “That says on one hand, that the establishment is doing their due diligence keeping employees and the public safe, but it also raises a flag to me,” he says.
After all, the question of whether he would encounter an infected person still lingers. “How can we even be certain that if they open again, that all workers are negative?”
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests restaurants that learn of a sick worker close off all areas used by that person, wait 24 hours, then clean and disinfect them. But it allows that if waiting a day isn’t “feasible,” the restaurant should wait as long as possible.
State and local rules differ: In Washington, for example, a restaurant where a worker has tested positive must close for 24 to 48 hours for cleaning and can reopen only on the advice of the D.C. Department of Health. But most states aren’t as restrictive — or specific. In Texas, for example, the state says that the sick worker should be sent home until he or she meets certain standards. South Carolina’s reopening guidelines say only that workers exposed to or diagnosed with the virus should be “excluded.”
The CDC recommends restaurants immediately alert the staff who might have had close contact with the infected worker, but there are no requirements. Local health departments might have protocols put in place pre-coronavirus for how restaurants should handle communicable diseases that would apply. Other advice for restaurants has been offered from the National Restaurant Association, state associations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Though they’re not required to, many owners are opting to go public when they know the virus has been in their midst. In a Facebook post on Friday, the Greg Norman Australian Grille in Myrtle Beach, S.C., announced it was temporarily closing after an employee tested positive. Popular Houston steakhouse Taste of Texas posted on Saturday that it was closed because of a sick employee. “Once 100 percent testing of our Taste of Texas team is complete, we will reopen,” it said. In Washington, D.C., Timber Pizza closed for a week in May, then reopened after testing, cleaning and establishing a new staffing system, the restaurant said on Instagram.
Such disclosures are a good idea, Shimberg says. If a restaurant doesn’t make the announcement itself, the news is bound to get out on social media — and it might not be correct.
“The information is going to get out one way or the other,” he says, adding restaurants can offer details about how many employees were affected and when they worked. “We’re advising people to take these steps because you get to control the narrative, and you can provide the accurate information.”
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