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Restaurants are closing again as staff test positive for coronavirus amid omicron surge

Lucky Buns in Washington, D.C., seen in 2018, temporarily closed this month after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. It's one of numerous restaurants around the country dealing with the recent surge in cases amid the omicron variant's spread. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Late last month, Dean Rodrigue, the owner of the Sawmill Bar and Grill in Millinocket, Maine, thought he had notched a small win. After months of posting “Help Wanted” signs, he had finally hired a bartender to mix drinks and pour beers, bringing his total employee pool at the casual eatery to eight.

The woman he hired worked a four-hour shift one Saturday, but before she was due to return the following Thursday, he got a message: She had tested positive for the coronavirus. Rodrigue did what he felt he had to and shut the place down.

“It was an easy decision to make,” he said. “But it was not a great decision to have to make.” It wasn’t just an ordinary weekend — it fell during the former mill town’s annual marathon, when thousands of runners and their friends and family pour into town. Rodrigue had been counting on the booming business the event typically brings in to tide him over. The restaurant had been losing money every week, he said, and they were in thick of the dreaded “shoulder season,” the dead zone between the warm-weather tourist season when hikers flock to the nearby parks and trails, and snowmobile season.

After the restaurant closed, Rodrigue and his girlfriend, who also works at the restaurant, and a chef — all of whom had been feeling a little under the weather — got tested. They were negative, and so he reopened the following weekend, figuring it had been more than a week and a half since the bartender who had tested positive had worked there.

Rodrigue isn’t the only restaurant owner navigating the uncertainty and financial toll that come with a positive coronavirus test or possible exposure among its staff. Around the country, bars and restaurants are shuttering and reopening as covid cases and deaths are on the rise and as the omicron variant spreads. For many restaurant owners, this is not just about business. It’s about their responsibilities to staff and the public health, and some say they don’t have a reliable road map for the omicron variant, which appears to be more contagious than previous strains of the novel coronavirus and more likely to evade vaccine protections.

Omicron and holidays unleash scramble for coronavirus tests across the U.S.

It’s not just restaurants feeling the new wave of covid disruption. About a hundred professional football players’ positive tests have led to the postponement of several NFL games. Some colleges around the country are sending students home and making final exams virtual. And outbreaks have led to the cancellation of concerts and shows from Broadway to the Kennedy Center.

On Thursday, Alex McCoy, the chef and owner of Washington's Lucky Buns, got a call from a diner who had just tested positive for the coronavirus. The customer, McCoy said, had dined at his burger joint in the Adams Morgan neighborhood Dec. 10.

Later that day, Lucky Buns operation manager Andy Plunket took the entire staff to a walk-in clinic for rapid-response tests. McCoy ordered the Adams Morgan location closed for the night “out of an abundance of caution,” as the owners wrote on Instagram.

Similar notices have popped up on social media in recent days as restaurants in Texas, Minnesota, Indiana and New York notified their customers of closures related to positive tests and potential covid exposures. In New York City alone — where restaurant workers and diners are required to provide proof of vaccination — running lists of restaurants closed due to covid cases in the double digits.

Some restaurants are choosing to close temporarily even before a positive test from a worker or a diner. Maketto, a Washington restaurant dedicated to modern Cambodian and Taiwanese cooking, preemptively canceled indoor dining until 2022. “Out of an abundance of caution to our staff and guests, we will be offering to-go only for the rest of the year,” chef and owner Erik Bruner-Yang wrote on Instagram. Bruner-Yang said he was in the middle of canceling dozens of reservations and couldn’t comment any further on the announcement.

This week, an employee at Bar Charley in Washington came down with covid, and owner Jackie Greenbaum immediately closed her place, even though it was a Saturday. After the staff scheduled for the following day tested negative, Bar Charley reopened, only to have another employee turn out positive later. That’s when Greenbaum decided to shut down her restaurant for five days so every employee could take a PCR test, the gold standard for determining if someone has the coronavirus. All of her employees were vaccinated, she noted.

Greenbaum said she will be paying her staff during the closure, including server tips. Between the payroll costs and the loss of revenue, she said she’ll lose tens of thousands of dollars.

“For our operations, specifically during the holiday period, we were and our staff is very nervous about knowing whether they are infected or not, particularly knowing that they’re going to see their families,” said Greenbaum who also co-owns El Chucho, Little Coco’s and Quarry House Tavern. “This time of year, there’s a heightened anxiety about it and a responsibility that you have to face.”

University of Illinois epidemiologist Katrine Wallace said it’s not yet known whether the spate of restaurant staff testing positive is linked to the spread of the omicron variant. But she noted that throughout the pandemic, restaurant workers have always been among the most vulnerable workers. It’s impossible for them to socially distance from customers they’re serving or from fellow kitchen staff, she said, and they work indoors, where the risk of transmission is higher.

“It’s just unavoidable that they have frequent contact with unvaccinated and unmasked people,” she said. “Even if a waiter is wearing a mask, there still could be virus flying around, since masks work primarily as source control.”

Restaurant owners say it’s falling to them to navigate their response when someone gets sick.

“There’s no security. We’re used to living with that level of no safety net… as small business owners, but now it really feels like a train is coming right behind you and you better outrun it all the time.” (Video: Washington Post Live)

Last year, when many states and localities issued emergency orders aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, including social distancing mandates and limits on restaurant capacity, they also imposed protocols for what an establishment should do if a worker tested positive. Many of those rules have since been suspended, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that restaurant managers send sick workers home and notify health officials and the rest of their staff of any cases of the coronavirus.

CDC guidance also suggests that those exposed to someone who tests positive get tested within three to five days and wear a mask in “public indoor settings for 14 days after exposure or until a negative test result.”

Fortunately for the Lucky Buns crew, all 13 workers tested negative, McCoy said, and he planned to reopen the restaurant on Friday. All of the Lucky Buns staff, McCoy added, were vaccinated, and they’re required to wear masks. But between the lost revenue and the cost of tests, McCoy said his establishment was out about $10,000, a sizable sum during an already difficult economic stretch.

“I have a responsibility to the health and well-being of my staff and their safety, their mental safety,” McCoy said. “It’s not just about a positive or negative test. It’s also about making sure that they’re in the right mind-set and they understand that they’re safe and they’re taken care of. They’re going to be protected.”

Not that there’s ever a good time for a potential outbreak, but for many restaurants, having a staffer test positive now comes at a time when restaurants are already strained. Hikes in food costs might mean they are adjusting their menus or raising prices, supply chain problems can cause uncertainty, and a nationwide labor shortage means many businesses are operating short-staffed or cutting their hours.

“The last few months have been difficult and chaotic for the restaurant industry,” said Sean Kennedy, the executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

Kennedy said that without additional relief from Congress, some of the temporarily closed restaurants plan to shut their doors for good. Both the NRA and the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) are urging Congress to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The IRC is predicting widespread restaurant closures if Congress doesn’t act.

In the meantime, restaurateurs are concerned about what the recent outbreaks and closures signal. Like Greenbaum, whose restaurants have had only one previous outbreak among staff, and that was very early in the pandemic at Quarry House, a subterranean pub.

I am suspicious that it’s the new variant only because we have been very careful and, I think, really responsible,” Greenbaum said. “My employees have been very, very careful. I don’t have a staff anywhere that is taking it lightly.”

Fritz Hahn contributed to this report.

More from Voraciously:

What you should know about indoor dining amid the delta variant

Merriam-Webster nods to pandemic by adding ‘ghost kitchen’ and ‘curbside pickup’

Selling home-cooked food is getting easier, thanks to pandemic-fueled deregulation

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