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‘There is no playbook’: Restaurants are closing again after workers test positive for coronavirus

Washington Post - Emily Heil

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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