By Bora Kang and Colin Kopel
Despite your best efforts to adhere to CDC’s safety guidelines and to make your guests feel safe and comfortable dining in your restaurant, you may face an unavoidable situation where your employee tests positive for the novel coronavirus. According to Will Eadie, Global VP of alliances, WorkJam, foodservice workers are essentially on the front lines and at high risk of getting sick (1). Workers may also be exposed to the virus elsewhere and may be in a situation where a family member contracts COVID-19. So, what can do you when your staff tests positive? Here are resources and advice on what to do when it happens.
First things first. The CDC is your best source for guidelines regarding COVID prevention, intervention and control, and you should consult the website for instructions on what to do when you are faced with a sick employee. Here is a brief overview of the CDC’s content (see website for more details https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/business-employers/bars-restaurants.html ).
1. Advise Sick Employees of Home Isolation Criteria
2. Isolate and Transport Those Who are Sick
3. Clean and Disinfect
4. Notify Health Officials and Close Contacts
Once you have followed these steps you can proceed to damage control. While it is recommended that restaurants temporarily close so that the business has time to clean and disinfect the restaurant, as well as having the rest of their staff tested, the rules regarding closures vary from state and region. For example, the State of Massachusetts now lawfully requires restaurants to immediate shut down for 24 hours (3). Some restaurants opt for closures voluntarily, even though they are not bound by law to close. A running list of restaurants and bars that are temporarily closed in Atlanta, GA, are listed here (4).
Unfortunately, not all restaurants can afford to shut down operations. Most restaurants do not have any form of a safety net left and closing can be devastating. Many operators will close for a few hours to disinfect the restaurant. There are third party companies that will come in and spray the entire facility with bio-friendly solutions. If they do close, restaurateurs leverage programs like Unemployment Insurance to hold their staff over on wages.
Overall, being flexible and prepared to act quickly and take necessary steps to sanitize the workplace will help operators expedite this process.
Notifying the Public
Transparency may be a difficult decision to make as an operator, especially given the financial loss that comes from temporary closures and the possible negative profiling of restaurants that report cases of COVID-19. First consider your number of staff and where their exposure came from. For example, if you have a small number of employees you may be able to narrow down the path of contact, isolating the cases so that you can prevent further exposure; if you discover that one of your staff has had close contact with someone who contracted the virus recently while outside of the workplace, you may be able to manage and contain the situation by asking the employee to stay at home until they fully recover.
Many experts have expressed a more positive outlook for restaurants that have chosen transparency. According to a social media survey by Taylor Adams, “Would You Eat Where Someone Tested Positive?” some diners showed support for restaurants who were honest with their customers (6). One commented: “There are most definitely restaurants that have remained open despite employees testing positive. I am thankful for those that have been transparent and are clearly taking this issue seriously. I hope that we collectively support them” (6). Meanwhile, one prominent restaurant in Colorado faced scrutiny when they failed to report their first COVID positive case to their guests (7).
The topic of transparency can be a difficult issue, and what works for one restaurant is not always going to work for another. Communicating a commitment to sanitation and promoting any vendors that are hired to sanitize the building or additional programs the restaurant is undertaking such as ServSafe Covid-19 Training is key. A restaurant’s commitment to extra safety precautions is a cornerstone to showing guests you are providing as safe as possible dining experience.
Reinforcing Safety Protocols
A staff testing positive can be a much-needed wake-up call for businesses. Operators should use this opportunity to remind your staff about safety and re-training them so that they adhere to the sanitation policies in place, most importantly—masks, gloves, hand-washing and social distancing, such as one provided by the CDC (2). Some operators have added regular temperature checks and deep cleaning into their routines because of growing concern among their employees (8). The Centrolina Restaurant in DC, for example, are enforcing stricter safety policies such as hand washing every 30 minutes, hourly cleaning, and twice-daily temperature checks for staff, after reopening after a positive COVID-19 case (8). Managers should accept staff call-outs due to medical reasons, allowing them to be excused from work if they are not feeling well. who express concerns they may have been exposed should be taken at their word. Many states require wellness contracts that outline symptoms such as fever that require them to stay home until they have recovered.
Collaborating with your employees is the key to effectively communicating important COVID-19 information, according to the CDC (9). We recommend operators to communicate with their employees about planned changes and, most importantly, seek their input. It may be difficult at first to balance an appropriate level of communication, to decide whether you tell your staff if an employee was exposed or tested positive, even after getting the employee’s written consent to share their personal results. Communication transparency is important for good company culture. While restaurants are open during the pandemic there is already an unease among staff and, coupled with another negative industry history of undervaluing hourly employees, there is a certain amount of skepticism towards management.
If someone tests positive, remind them of the environment we are in and that vigilance is their best tool to protect themselves. Let them know all the additional safety measures the restaurant is taking and, most importantly, listen to them. Ask them what would make them feel safer and, when feasible, accommodate the staff. They are the ones on the front line, and you cannot run a successful business without well-trained staff. They need to feel safe and know that the restaurant is here to support them.
Returning to Work
Individuals who have tested positive can return to work when they have fully recovered. There are certain tests individuals can take to determine whether an employee can safely return to work, but go-to resource should be this CDC website where a “Return to Work Criteria” is listed for businesses (10).
Exposure to the COVID-19 virus is possibly unavoidable given the spread of the pandemic, and there is no one right strategy to prepare for its impact on businesses. Overall, operators who can act quickly to employees testing positive, as well as possible closures, will benefit by avoiding further confusion and panic (1). Our recommendation to operators is to keep your staff informed about updates, ensuring that the communication lines are open and streamlined so that staff can be up to date on new safety policies, scheduling, as well as hours and staffing.
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