Alabama restaurants are starting to get stuck in a vicious cycle since they reopened in early May: A growing number are opting to close after an employee is either suspected of, or has, a confirmed case of COVID-19.
The closed restaurants then are cleaned and sanitized, employees are tested for the virus, and then a reopening occurs.
For at least one restaurant that cycle has happened more than once.
And with no hard and fast rules of when a restaurant must shut down or for how long, restaurants are relying mainly on common sense and advice from their local health departments
At Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in Mobile, no closure was necessary. The restaurant, which had one of its employees test positive for COVID-19, has trimmed its capacity to 25% and the employees who worked the same shift as the infected worker were all tested for the virus. So far, no one else has gotten it.
“We are unsure where they contracted it,” said Rashad Nicholas, the restaurant’s manager, who described the employee as a part-time worker. “We’re just erring on the side of caution.”
The most recent State Health Order doesn’t limit a restaurant’s capacity, but it does limit the party size at tables to no more than eight people. Tables, booths, chairs and stools are supposed to be separated by at least 6 feet.
The rash of coronavirus cases among restaurant employees are coming at a time when Alabama is experiencing record-breaking single-day increases in coronavirus cases. Alabama is one of 35 states that has seen the number of new cases grow by 5% or more compared to last week.
Much of the growth has been attributed to a sudden rise in people under age 40 who have contracted the virus as states reopen their economies. It’s an age group that is employed consistently in the hospitality sector. In Mobile County, for instance, health officials attributed the rise to people ages 18-29.
The restaurant closures are being determined by owners and operators in a Scout’s honor system. There is no state or federal requirement for restaurants to close if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, and there is no guidance as to how long a restaurant should remain shuttered once an infection occurs.
“The answer to that is complex,” said Dr. Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist who is the director of the Mobile County Health Department’s Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services. “If they have been implementing the (state’s) Safer at Home recommendations, they may only need to close and disinfect one part of the restaurant.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health – along with health departments in Jefferson and Mobile counties – have the authority to issue emergency orders to shut down a restaurant for violating health orders. So far, no known emergency orders have been filed during the pandemic.
“Local health departments are following up on complaints, informing restaurant owners/managers of the requirements and issue the emergency order of a health officer to cease operations if required to obtain compliance with the order,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer.
Said Dr. Molly Fleece, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham: “This is where the local and state health departments become very important. They can come in and assess the risk of how many employees, what type of exposures were had. It is not a one-size-fits-all occurrence or evaluation. Each individual restaurant is being looked at by the health department and each restaurant is given guidance on how they should operate going forward.”
While no emergency orders requiring a restaurant to shut down have been issued, the Alabama Department of Public Health has conducted 15 enforcement actions for violations to the State Health Order that includes citations against the eatery for having employees not wearing a face covering if they are interacting with the public, or for allowing self-service at drink stations. Both are prohibited under the most recent State Health Order issued on May 21, and which doesn’t expire until July 3.
Among the violators was Moe’s Original Bar B Que in Huntsville, which was cited for employees not wearing masks or facial coverings on May 22.
In recent days, two of the Moe’s eateries have been closed in Alabama after an employee was found to have COVID-19. Both closures were announced on the individual restaurant’s Facebook pages.
Mark White, the owner of the South Alabama restaurants, said in a statement to AL.com that the eatery is “going above and beyond what local departments” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends restaurants do in order to maintain safety. After the restaurant is shut down, a professional cleaning comes into the location affected and all employees undergo testing. They all must be negative before returning to work, White said.
Masks are required of all employees, he said, and they also must wear gloves.
In Mobile, White said the infected employee was asymptomatic.
Ryan Helsley, who owns and operates the Moe’s Original Bar B Que in downtown Decatur, said the employee who tested positive at their restaurant also lives with another employee. A closure ensued at the suggestion of local public health officials. The restaurant was cleaned and sanitized, but the closure was extended to include the Moe’s in Priceville and Mellow Mushroom in Decatur.
“Since as the owner of multiple restaurants, I am back and forth everywhere,” Helsley said. “We closed Mellow Mushroom as well as the Priceville location too, just as a precautions.”
CDC guidelines require restaurants to routinely clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, work stations, sink handles, bathroom stalls, counter tops, bars, receipt trays and condiment holders.
David Esposito -- owner of The Auburn Draft House, Esposito’s Italian Bistro and Halftime -- said the cleanliness of his restaurants is not the main issue. “Someone who stays on top of their restaurant, it’s going to be cleaner than that’s person house, to be honest,” he said. “We sanitize all the time.”
Esposito said the concerns over employees and visitors not adhering to social distancing recommendations by the CDC during non-work hours is the likely cause of the COVID-19 concerns inside restaurants.
He said he’s had to close The Auburn Draft House twice this month following COVID-19 concerns. Right now, all three establishments are closed after a cook and a regular visitor to Halftime tested positive to coronavirus.
Esposito, who plans to discuss safety protocols with his staff during a Zoom meeting Sunday, said he plans to reopen his businesses next week.
“Inside the restaurant, we’ve done an excellent job of adhering to the policies set by the state and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but that’s not where our issues are,” said Esposito. “The issues are what people do after they get off of work and what other people do.”
Esposito admits he is being more cautious than other restaurant operators. He believes people who have been potentially exposed to the virus should wait before returning to work or visiting restaurants and bars.
He added, “I think people need to be educated that there is an incubation period. You can go in and be tested and it’s a negative but in 7 to 10 days, it’s 100% (positive). The 7-10 days is when you’ll have a pretty good accurate test. So when you have these potentials on who that person is around, and it’s a potential (COVID-19 case) but it’s not certified positive, I mean, it’s a shutdown (situation). That person could be negative, but you shut down to keep everyone safe. It’s a tough thing. I don’t want to be frowned upon because I do believe we are doing the right thing.”
Kimberly Severt, director of the Hospitality Management Program at the University of Alabama, said the cycle of closing and reopening that restaurants are going through right now will likely lead to substantive changes in how they operate.
Change is proving to be difficult, she said.
“The service delivery process needs to change and that’s not only a difficult mind shift but also a financial one in a time where restaurants are hanging on with a thread,” said Severt. “The service delivery processes in restaurants will need to change in order to keep employees and guests safe.”
She said that cleaning and sanitizing – which she describes as being “excellent” – is only part of the solution.
“Processes that limited contact or no contact are the key during this time,” said Severt. “I anticipate a surge in technology usage such as self-ordering where the service provider is not directly in front of the customer. The design of restaurants may change in a way that will be better suited for our new way of life.”
Examples, she said, will include continued use of mobile app ordering, air purifying systems within restaurants, and even robots. The use of robotic servers has become popular at coffee shops and eateries in Europe and South Korea.
“The reality is that restaurants play an important role in our society beyond just delivery of food and beverage,” said Severt. “Restaurants have typically been the place where people meet, have fun, and memories are created. We must find a way to create experiences in a new way in order to keep people safe.”
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