Contact-tracing can help keep restaurant outbreaks at bay, experts say, but only in places without widespread infections. “I like to think that due to contact tracing and quickly quarantining close contacts, we have not had large outbreaks in restaurants yet,” said Melissa Lunt, the director of nursing at the Graham County Health Department in Arizona. When workers were sickened in two restaurants in the area, the health department moved quickly to quarantine them to prevent further community spread.
Testing is its own problem for workers. While many cities offer tests for free, results can take days or even weeks to return, leaving employees out of a job while they wait.
“A lot of times the restaurant will foot the bill if they want quick testing through a private company,” said Dr. Alex Jahangir, the chairman of a coronavirus task force in Nashville who has studied the role of restaurants and bars in his area. “Sometimes the restaurant will tell their employees to come to one of our city sites, which are free, but the results may take three days. If people are symptomatic, sometimes the restaurant will refer the person to a local medical center and will have their health insurance pay for the test.”
Of course, low-wage restaurant workers, especially part-time employees, may not have health coverage. Or if they did, layoffs might have jeopardized their ability to make payments on those plans.
In the meantime, some proprietors are doing what they can to keep operating and keep people safe, at great cost and worry. Benjamin Goldberg, a founder of Strategic Hospitality, a group that runs eight spots in Nashville, has opened some places with indoor dining and kept other places closed. In the interim, he and his staff members have become mini-public health experts. “We did research on what places around the world were doing and learned from them,” he said. “City and state guidance were only the baseline of our expectations.”
Short of testing everyone who worked in or entered his restaurants — an impossibility — they moved to take the temperature of every customer, worker and vendor before they are permitted to enter. Employees are tested regularly for the virus. All silverware comes in a bag sealed with stickers, menus have gone virtual and pens used to sign checks are sanitized and placed in a sealed bag.
“We felt if we could build that trust in the short term, it would pay off in the long term.”