Already hit by the pandemic, restaurants fight against Omicron epidemics

In less than two days, the two restaurants closed their doors amid an outcry from staff. The employee, her manager and at least nine other workers have tested positive for COVID, according to estimates by several employees. Two complaints were lodged with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

The outbreak at sister Southie restaurants – described to the Globe by five employees there – is one example of how quickly Omicron can tear a restaurant apart. Even in a location that apparently followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, a rapid outbreak forced tough decisions and left grudges in its wake. As each industry grapples with the rise of the highly contagious variant, it has proven particularly difficult for restaurants already struggling with a severe labor shortage and nearly two years of stopping reopens. and-start which forced many people to shut down permanently.

The lack of clear guidelines at the state and federal level has fueled confusion and conflict over safety measures, especially when an employee tests positive. Figuring out how to stay afloat in the middle of another COVID winter is straining an industry at its breaking point.

Dozens of Boston restaurants have closed preventively or switched to take-out as cases began to rise in December. Others have closed in response to positive cases among staff, quarantined at the height of the holiday rush. Then there are examples such as Karen Akunowicz’s two acclaimed spots in Southie, which briefly remained open only to see the virus surpass containment efforts, leading to frustration, finger points and a stack of positive cases.

“It’s been tough,” Akunowicz wrote in an email to The Globe last week. “We have tried to strike a balance between some of our employees who are in desperate need of work and those who are afraid to come to work and contract COVID, as well as the health and safety of our community. “

The Fox & the Knife restaurant in South Boston has temporarily closed after a COVID outbreak among staff.
Suzanne Kreiter / Globe Staff

Many restaurants have struggled to adapt to Omicron. And their responses have varied.

When Will Gilson learned that two employees had tested positive with groundbreaking cases on December 22, he converted his four Cambridge restaurants – Puritan & Company, The Lexington, Geppetto and Café Beatrice – to take-out only during the New Year. . Puritan will reopen Thusday; the others remain to take away.

At Brick & Mortar in Central Square in Cambridge, owner Gary Strack began giving his eight employees rapid tests in mid-December so they could clean their noses before opening the cocktail bar, which is open from Wednesday to Saturday. Sometimes, he said, that meant driving all the way to New Hampshire or losing $ 25 for a single exam.

The only employee who has so far tested positive, Strack said, was not in contact with co-workers. But the restaurant nonetheless closed for a day so everyone could take a PCR test, he said.

Of course, every closing day costs money. And the choices these establishments face have become increasingly difficult, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, highlighting waves of permanent closings and faded hopes of further federal help. Staff shortages, severe even before Omicron arrived, have only made matters worse.

“When you have three or four people calling who have been diagnosed with COVID or are in close contact, it can cripple a restaurant,” he said. “Right now restaurants have to play day by day, quarter by quarter in terms of what they can do. “

Most restaurants, Luz said, “continue to operate and err on the side of safety.”

To complicate matters, said Irene Li, owner of Mei Mei Boston, who has championed workers, restaurants have received little advice – and less help – as the pandemic dragged on.

“No one is telling us how to handle this and the support we had at the start of the pandemic is gone,” said Li, who has turned his own Fenway restaurant into a food delivery business. “We only have bad options for the most part and that’s what leads to bad choices.”

Sean Benedict prepared for a COVID test as his colleague Dennis Dobbins Jr. opened the package to pick it up at Brick & Mortar in Central Square.
Sean Benedict prepared for a COVID test as his colleague Dennis Dobbins Jr. opened the package to pick it up at Brick & Mortar in Central Square.Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

For some Fox & the Knife employees, a few key choices changed everything.

Over 100 diners could have a typical night’s sleep, many drawn to Akunowicz’s lively social media and reputation as a winner of the James Beard Foundation Award which competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef”. The three-year-old restaurant was his first solo business, and in November Akunowicz opened Bar Volpe, just off West Broadway.

The two sites sometimes share staff, although Akunowicz says it’s usually just a few managers. Yet, this is how employees suspect the cases are spreading.

The first case occurred at Bar Volpe on Friday, December 17, when Akunowicz learned that an employee had tested positive. She spent $ 6,250 to provide antigen tests – which are faster but less sensitive than PCR tests – to more than 40 Bar Volpe employees. Two tested positive and were sent home, and Bar Volpe closed early this Saturday evening.

Fox & the Knife, however, remained open on Sunday. And, according to one of the OSHA complaints, three employees who worked at Volpe came to work at Fox & the Knife.

Akunowicz said all three were asymptomatic and tested negative on Saturday. But one complained that he was not feeling well on Sunday, according to the staff member who first felt ill on Sunday and an OSHA complaint filed by another Fox employee. & the Knife. He “worked the whole shift anyway,” she said.

On Monday, when the restaurant was closed as usual, a Fox & the Knife employee tested positive. On Tuesday, Akunowicz emailed staff about the case and suggested that exposed employees undergo a COVID PCR test before the restaurant reopens on Wednesday.

“They were still planning to open the next day,” Fox waitress Katherine Hopkinson said. “It was just weird.”

In an increasingly anxious chain of emails, some employees responded that they were concerned about their own health and if they risked exposing customers, who had not yet been made aware of the cases at either restaurant. Another asked if there would also be rapid tests for Fox employees, which Akunowicz said was not possible.

Bartender Tyler Lymer, absent for a few weeks with an injury, responded more candidly, according to emails reviewed by The Globe.

“No one feels comfortable working, especially when they feel unsafe when the property seems determined to make money at the expense of staff and guests,” Lymer wrote. “Chief, I’m going to ask you to do the right things please.”

In the end, Akunowicz decided to close both restaurants until December 28 and post brief ads on Instagram. After other cases occurred, this was extended until January 5.

All along, Akunowicz said, she has tried to follow CDC guidelines, which advise fully vaccinated people to mask themselves after close contact and if there are no symptoms, get tested “if possible.” .

“For two years, we pivoted with every change in CDC guidelines,” she told The Globe. “We have always put the good of our people and the good of our customers first. “

Still, some employees decided they needed more. Last week, several sent Akunowicz a list of COVID measures they wanted to see implemented in restaurants, including making sure sick workers could take advantage of the state’s paid sick leave program, by providing rapid testing to employees before shifts and faster communication of potential exposures.

And if exposed to Fox & the Knife or Bar Volpe, they added, both should close. The letter was not signed but supported by at least 15 employees, according to its authors.

Akunowicz told The Globe last week that they were working to get workers paid despite COVID shutdowns. “We always welcome feedback from staff and look forward to dealing with it internally with our team. “

When asked about the OSHA complaints, Akunowicz blamed a “disgruntled employee,” although she did not respond to follow-up questions asking for more details. OSHA, through a spokesperson, confirmed it received two complaints on Dec. 23 but was awaiting a response from restaurants late last week.

The Volpe bar reopened on December 30. Fox & the Knife is scheduled to reopen on Wednesday.

Diti Kohli, Janelle Nanos, Devra First and Travis Andersen of Globe staff contributed to this report.

Elizabeth Koh can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @elizabethrkoh.

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