Restaurateurs operating during this pandemic face multiple challenges, but few are more important than what they do when an employee tests positive for the coronavirus. With little official guidance available, operators are relying on information from a variety of sources as well as their instincts to protect their customers, employees and businesses. Many are likely unsure of whether to temporarily close their restaurants or stay open, and when/if to notify the health department and/or public when confronted with a sick employee. While transparency typically is the best way to handle the situation, it’s critical for every restaurant to follow all local and state codes or regulations where they exist. In April, when Chef Amy Brandwein, owner of Washington, D.C.-based Centrolina and Piccolina restaurants found out one of her kitchen employees was sick with the virus, she immediately consulted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, notified the rest of her staff, and contacted her local department of health. She told Washingtonian magazine she messaged her customers on social media and in an email blast, explaining the situation and that she was suspending all service, including takeout and delivery, for a two-week quarantine. She had the space deep-cleaned and sanitized. Brandwein says notifying the health officials and the public was a no-brainer even though she didn’t have to. While closing may feel like the safest decision for some, for others it could mean the difference between surviving and not. Importantly, the CDC has indicated that restaurants and other businesses “in most cases” do not need to shut down when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. Restaurateurs wondering what to do when an employee says he or she is sick or exposed should err on the side of caution, says Larry Lynch, the National Restaurant Association’s senior vice president of Certification & Operations. “If the sick employee comes into work, send them home immediately — before they come into contact with anyone — and have them see a doctor,” he says. “If they’re sick enough to get tested and it comes back positive, contact your local health department to help them do a contact trace to minimize the risk of the employee’s exposure to others.” Lynch also notes that restaurants, bars and other hospitality establishments will inevitably experience at least one or more of their employees testing positive for COVID-19. He advises them to take immediate action, while showing concern for the employee at the same time. For what comes next, the Association’s Restaurant Law Center has outlined seven steps to follow. 1. Addressing employees who are sickMake sure that employees know they should not come to work if they are sick and should notify their manager or other designated COVID-19 point of contact. If an employee becomes sick while at work with COVID-19 symptoms, tests positive for COVID-19, or has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms (fever, headache, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath), the employee should notify his or her supervisor or other designated COVID-19 point of contact. 2. What to do when employees at work present COVID-19 symptomsImmediately separate employees who have COVID-19 symptoms. Sick individuals should go home or to a health-care facility, depending on how severe their symptoms are, and follow CDC guidance for caring for oneself and others who are sick. Employees should not return to work until they meet the criteria — in consultation with their health-care provider — to discontinue home isolation. 3.What to do withasymptomatic COVID-19-exposed employeesCritical Infrastructure employees who’ve been exposed but remain asymptomatic could be asked to stay home for 14 days from the last exposure, or they may be allowed to return to work following these precautions:
A designee takes the employee’s temperature and assesses symptoms prior to starting each shift
The employee self-monitors throughout the day, on alert for symptoms
The employee wears a face mask while in the workplace and washes hands often
The employee practices social distancing and maintains a 6-foot separation as work duties permit
The operation increases the frequency of cleaning commonly touched surfaces
If the employee becomes sick during the day, he or she is immediately sent home
4. How to begin contact-tracing employees exposed to COVID-19Contact trace within your operation to determine potential exposure. You can ask a COVID-19-positive employee which coworkers he or she was in “close contact” with (within six feet for more than 15 minutes) during the prior two weeks, or check shift schedules. 5. Notify health officials and close contacts when an employee tests positiveIn accordance with state and local laws, operators should notify local health officials and staff of any case of COVID-19 among employees, while maintaining confidentiality in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Advise those who have had close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 to stay home, self-monitor for symptoms, and follow CDC guidance if symptoms develop. As critical infrastructure, you may also allow COVID-19 exposed asymptomatic employees to return to work with the precautions outlined above. They are also in the CDC Guidance for Critical Infrastructure Workers. 6. Cleaning and disinfecting the areaClose off areas used by a sick person and do not use those areas until after cleaning and disinfecting them.
Wait at least 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting. If 24 hours isn’t feasible, wait as long as possible. Ensure safe, correct use and storage of cleaning and disinfection products. 7. Permitting the return to workYou may ask for a “fitness for duty/return to work” medical clearance note prior to a sick employee returning for work. Some jurisdictions, such as New York, do not allow employers to ask for such notes from asymptomatic employees. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. The public will be forgiving if an operator shows he or she handled the situation properly, followed all protocols, and that the restaurant environment is safe. For a shareable link to the Restaurant Law Center’s guidance material, click here.
Restaurants across the country are reclosing as employees test positive for COVID-19, sometimes only days or weeks after reopening for the first time since the pandemic began.
But many say they are lacking clear guidance from health agencies on precisely how to proceed when a worker contracts the virus. While closing may feel like the safest decision, it can also be a major blow for restaurants that are just regaining their footing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), restaurants and other businesses “in most cases” do not need to shut down when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. (See the CDC’s full guidelines here.)
So what’s the best response? We asked three health experts who said that, while there are many factors that play into the decision of whether to close, restaurants that follow the proper procedures in a timely manner can contain the problem while staying open. Much of what a restaurant does immediately after an employee tests positive has to do with the quality of the COVID-related plans and procedures it already has in place, said Dr. Peter Orris, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the Occupational Health Services Institute.
Those procedures include reducing interaction between employees and reorganizing the food production process so that if an employee tests positive, it’s easier to identify fellow workers who need to be removed. “Does it mean you have to shut the whole restaurant? In some cases, perhaps,” Orris said. “But if it’s a dishwasher running the dishwashing machine, interacting only with people bringing dishes to them, that’s an easier situation to control.” The CDC says an employee who has been within 6 feet of an infected worker for 15 consecutive minutes should stay home for two weeks following their last exposure.
That’s a change from earlier guidance that set the exposure window at 15 cumulative minutes, said Roslyn Stone, COO of Zero Hour Health, a company that helps restaurants manage food safety and health incidents. “That is a much much more limited group of contacts in a restaurant,” she said. It should also eliminate guests when considering who has been exposed to an infected worker. “No guest is within 6 feet for 15 consecutive minutes of a staff member at a restaurant,” Stone said.
Restaurants that have shut down after a positive test have tended to have either a large number of staff positives and exclusions, or managers that have tested positive, leaving no one to run the restaurant, Stone said. “[With] norovirus, you would close to break the illness cycle and because you were worried about surface infections in the restaurant,” she said. “That’s not our concern with COVID. This is a person-to-person illness.” Once you have the infected person out, there’s no more danger in the restaurant, she said.
After exposed employees have been identified and excluded—which can likely be done without closing if that group is small enough—restaurants need to do what is commonly known as “deep cleaning.” The technical term is forensic cleaning, or “the complete removal of biological material and infectious agents” in the space, said Patty Olinger, executive director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, which administers an accreditation program for companies' cleanliness and response to biohazards, including pandemics.
Forensic cleaning might sound intense, but it can be accomplished without shutting down the restaurant for an extended period, Olinger said: “There are always times when you’re not open.”
It can be done by the restaurant itself, but Olinger and Stone said operators might consider hiring an outside service with expertise.
“Once you’ve done that, you can reopen immediately because you’ve gone through the steps of that deep hygienic cleaning and then the terminal disinfection step as well,” Olinger said.
Thanks to new technology such as electrostatic sprayers that ensure disinfectants coat surfaces evenly, this step can be done much faster than in the past, Olinger said. And speed is a key factor if a restaurant wants to manage the situation without closing. “The faster you act, probably the faster you can get back to normal functioning,” Orris said.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to shut down depends on the size of the restaurant and the number of workers exposed, as well as public perception.
“There’s no best answers, but certainly there is a best approach,” Orris said. “Pre think it out. Do all of the possible approaches to social distancing that we know work—masks being an important component—and then act rapidly if you have a positive test because you must assume that that will spread quickly.”
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