Restaurant Owners Face Tricky Decisions During Virus – Brevard, NC
Last updated 11/25/2020 at 4:50pm
After an employee notified him of a COVID-19 diagnosis on Nov. 18, Bruce Stewart, owner of the restaurant KTCHN in downtown Brevard, faced the sudden reality of closure.
Stewart notified Transylvania Public Health and began the process of closure and quarantine based on guidelines provided by the department.
For Stewart, that process has been an educational journey, first with not having access to “concrete evidence” on the employee’s positive test due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), a federal statute that protects the privacy of the patient, and what he described as the lack of a clear plan of action regarding an owner closing his business when a positive test arises among staff.
Stewart said he would be closed for a 14-day quarantine period in which staff will need to return with negative test results. Since staff has been tested, two employees have tested positive.
“Technically, I will be closed through Thanksgiving and will probably be open the Wednesday after Thanksgiving,” he said. “That gives us a Monday and Tuesday to come back and do another cleaning of the place to make sure nobody can return unless we all have negative tests.”
He said closure would cost him a significant financial hit.
“Trust me, I’ve been at the health department every day to try to find out what’s going on, because potentially if the employee isn’t in Transylvania County and the case started in the county in which the employee resides, such as Henderson, Buncombe or Cherokee, and who knows if that county has a tremendous amount of case loads, so it might not be at the top of its list of things to deal with,” he said.
Restaurants are not required to close due to a COVID diagnosis among staff, according to officials. Stewart said the health department has been helpful, but added that there is only so much it can tell him, as it is bound by HIPPA, as well.
“In this case, there was a report that there was one employee who was on the payroll there on staff who had tested positive, and, so, when it’s one person and it’s a larger restaurant, they have to analyze internally where the exposures were and may have occurred in the flow of the business because, remember, the standard for being a contact is that one needs to be within 6 feet for longer than 15 minutes,” Russell said. “Many of our restaurants are doing very well with wearing masks, and there are some control measures in there, but generally a server isn’t going to be at a patron’s table for 15 minutes.”
Whether or not a restaurant owner chooses to close, Russell said, depends on how many cases there are and what the comfort level is for that owner, but an owner is not required to close.
The health department’s role, she said, is examining the interactions that may have been with his or her colleagues on the floor.
With the higher number that may have been exposed, or that are confirmed as being positive, it creates a more complicated situation for that restaurant owner to analyze, she said.
“I wish I could say that there was one set formula that works, but we really just have to go in and work with that restaurant based on what their staff size is, how their business flows and the front of the house versus the back of the house,” Russell said. “All of those pieces we just have to analyze with them individually.”
Also, some employees work in multiple counties, and may live in another county.
“People can have many part-time jobs, and so you may have many intersecting points in any one situation,” she said. “When things cross county lines, it gets even more complicated, and then you throw HIPPA in there, and some people are very forthright and provide full disclosure, while other people will be less forthcoming. Every situation is unique, and we’ve been incredibly blessed in this community that all of our restaurant owners have taken this situation very seriously. When there has been a positive test from staff, they’ve stepped forward and put cleaning protocols in place. They’ve closed for several days. We have been fortunate with the buy-in and compliance with our restaurants around control measures when they’ve encountered staff that is or potentially is positive.”
Stewart said he’s surprised, given the amount of people who have come in and out of KTCHN, that this is the first time anyone has reported to him of a possible positive test result.
“I’m thankful for it, but now that something has happened, it’s just interesting that I can’t do anything about it because I’m operating without 100 percent knowledge on what’s going on, and even if I did find out, by the time I did it would be too late,” he said. “I’m responsible for a lot of people’s health and livelihoods, yet I can’t give them 100 percent information.”
According to a survey from the National Restaurant Association on Sept. 14, nearly one in six restaurants (representing nearly 100,000 restaurants) were closed either permanently or long-term; nearly 3 million employees were still out of work; and the industry is on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year.
“The waiting game is what is disheartening,” Stewart said.
What he found in the testing process itself bothered him, he said.
“If you go get a swab, or a culture test, and it comes back negative, they will ask you to go get another test because there are more false negatives than positives,” he said, which is what happened with the first employee. “I think it’s important for people to understand and realize the different types of tests out there. I think the culture test has more validity than the rapid response test. So, what I was told was, even if I get a swab test and it comes back negative, they would retest me again to verify because the positivity rate is so high, I guess. But the thing about it is, if someone gets a rapid response test and it comes back negative, and then gets the swab test and it comes back positive, then the department goes with the swab test. Here’s my question: why do we even have the rapid response test, then?”
He said the conundrum for him is if one isn’t getting a true result from a rapid response test, then it could result in people shutting down businesses that don’t need to or in businesses staying open that don’t need to stay open.
Tara Rybka, the public educator at Transylvania Public Health, said, in general, rapid tests are appropriate for people who have symptoms.
“When we run a rapid test, we will do two swabs, one for a rapid test and automatically do a PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which is being done by most major labs like LabCorp and Quest,” she said. “Most of the time the antigen tests are the ones that are being done with the little machines that are in house.”
She said the procedure also depends on the brand.
“They all have different guidance specific to the manufacturer,” she said. “It’s hard to speak in generalities here. If a rapid antigen test is positive, it is almost always a true positive, but they can have false negatives, and, so, the best practice is to send out lab tests for any rapids that come back negative. Not everybody does that. Some people just do the rapid, but that’s the end of it. When we do our testing we always do both just to be doubly safe.”
At Falls Landing on Main Street in Brevard, owner Mike Young said the employees who were diagnosed with COVID-19 at his restaurant were contacted by contact tracers frequently.
He had to shut down twice, once in September and in October.
“We had an employee’s husband test positive,” he said. “We shut down and got everybody tested, and then waited until all the test results came back, and everybody tested negative. No one tested positive amongst our staff, so then we reopened and that took about a week.”
Then, an actual employee tested positive, and he said the restaurant shut down for two weeks as they went through the same procedure, with everyone again testing negative.
“For us, that was a bit of a learning curve,” Young said. “All of our staff, we wear masks when we are in the building, even if there are no customers in there, so everybody has a mask on in the kitchen. What we learned from that is that the masks actually work because no one else tested positive amongst our staff, just the one individual, and she doesn’t really know how she contacted it. But it didn’t come from a customer, because our policy in here is all customers have to wear a mask. We have gloves on, and masks, so we are pretty stringent as far as that goes. That’s our policy. If an employee starts feeling ill, we ask them to go get tested, and then if they tested positive, then we shut down and get everybody else tested.”
One can’t be too careful in a pandemic, he said, with overreacting being better than underreacting.
“We have good communication with our staff, with a lot of people who have been here years, so I know our people very well just because they’ve been here a long time,” Young said. “I think the shortest term person has been here three years, so everybody looks out for one another. I hate to use the term family, but that’s almost what it is like.”
The difference between what happened at Falls Landing, in which contact tracers contacted employees, and at KTCHN, where Stewart said he’s still not heard from anyone, might be that none of Stewart’s staff had been identified as “close contacts,” though Rybka said she couldn’t make a comparison based on limited knowledge of what exactly happened at Falls Landing.
“Because of HIPPA, because we have an obligation to protect health information, we aren’t going to call an employer and tell them that one of the employers tested positive,” Rybka said. “The employee may identify where he or she works and identify three close contacts at work. That’s when we may have to reach out to that employer and say one of your employees have tested positive. A lot of times an employee will go ahead and let his or her employer know.”
By definition, a close contact is defined by the health department as anyone who has been within 6 feet of a case for 15 minutes or more, cumulative, she said.
“It could be a 5 minute conversation and you walk off, and an hour later you come back and have a 10 minute conversation,” Rybka said. “It doesn’t have to be 15 minutes at a time. When we are identifying close contacts, we don’t consider whether folks have been wearing masks because we know the reporting of that can be a little problematic just based on the current CDC definition. It does not take into account whether or not folks have been wearing masks, but we do know that those close contacts, if they’ve been wearing masks, they are less likely to make people sick. It won’t keep your friends and family from getting quarantined, but it could keep them from getting sick.”
In other words, if a close contact is identified within that business, the health department contacts that business and let’s the employer know that an employee has tested positive.
“A lot of times at that point they will know and they will have information to share with us, but that’s what we can share with them,” Rybka said. “Anyone identified as a close contact should be getting a call from us. The challenge comes here in Transylvania County that not all of our county residents work in Transylvania County, and all of the people who work in Transylvania County don’t live in Transylvania County, so we’ve had instances in which we have to investigate cases where folks work out of county, and other health departments are investigating cases for people who work in Transylvania County. That can create some differences in how quickly the owners can get information.”
Young said he was bothered by there being no mask mandate for the city.
“I see people walking up and down around Main Street not wearing a mask, whereas in Highlands, they made a mandate to wear masks up there,” he said. “I just wish the city would do something about that. There is proof in the pudding that it does work.”
He said the restaurant is also responsible for doing it’s own policing in getting customers to wear masks.
“It’s not every day, but you never know who that person is going to be when they come through the door, and it’s very stressful because there are people that, for whatever reason, because of the lack of leadership in Washington, think that it’s all a hoax,” he said.
One restaurant worker who did not want to be named said – and others in the business have echoed the statement – that it’s only a matter of time before a restaurant gets hit with the virus.
The Square Root on Times Arcade Alley in Brevard had to shut down in July for 10 days.
According to restaurant manager Jacob Pinter, an agreement was made in March that if any staff got COVID-19, “the necessary steps would be taken.”
“In 2019, if an employee called and said I don’t feel well, we would say, ‘try to tough it out or get your shift covered,’ but now, when someone calls, we just tell them to stay home,” Pinter said. “If an employee doesn’t feel well for two days in a row, we ask them to go get a test.”
He said that though COVID-19 is crushing businesses, one can rebuild a business, but people can’t be brought back.
“You really must commend people who are doing the right thing by shutting down without hesitation,” Pinter said. “This isn’t an easy time for people. The fact that people aren’t gambling at all with people’s safety says a lot about their character and integrity. I hope that they can bounce back, and I hope we can make it through. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s just a matter of time before any business in this area will have to shut down again.
“And with all the talk in the air it looks like that might happen sooner than later as far as the governor possible doing another shut down, so this is just a weird time, but we are trucking through. We’ve got a good community here, with a lot of people to back us up.”
For Stewart, he said he’s grateful to not be in a situation at work in which COVID-19 is being spread, but the process for him has raised questions.
“It’s Wednesday, and still no agency has gotten in touch with me,” he said. “That’s my frustration.”