Two restaurant employees prepare food in the back of the house.

pexels/Elle Hughes

Transparency and communication are critical.

What Should Restaurants Do if an Employee has COVID-19?

There aren't many regulations out there.

As reclosures and COVID cases mount across the country, a microscope is being placed on employee safety. While many brands temporarily shuttered because workers fell ill, regulations around this topic are loose. The majority of states and cities nationwide do not legally require restaurants to disclose if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. So we’re left with a high-stakes honor system of sorts.

Massachusetts has a mandate that forces venues to shutter for at least 24 hours and disinfect the space per CDC guidelines. The rule extends to patrons and vendors getting sick, too. But it’s a scare example. Far more markets simply offer recommendations and guidelines instead of enforceable mandates.

And in turn, we don’t truly know how many restaurant employees get sick today, and how many operators stay open regardless.

An Illinois court issued a preliminary injunction against McDonald’s last week, ruling that select franchisees weren’t doing enough to protect employees. It ordered three McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago to improve safety training and provide stricter rules enforcement. McDonald's Corporate and McDonald's USA were not enjoined in the case because they don't own any of the restaurants at issue in the suit.

Five McDonald’s employees and family members filed the suit on May 19. Judge Eve Reilly of Cook County Circuit Court wrote it “may very well be a matter of life or death to individuals who come in contact with these restaurants or employees of these restaurants on a regular, or even semi-regular basis, during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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She said McDonald’s took proper steps to prevent coronavirus, but did not train employees correctly with social distancing and failed to enforce its own mask wearing policy.

This mirrored, in some ways, the union efforts and worker strikes that took place earlier in the year to change closure policies and safety requirements at major grocers. The complaint came from employees who said their companies were slow to inform workers' that their peers were exposed to the virus, and slow to close when someone contracted it.

As Eater points out, “It seems clear that businesses aren’t going to make the decision to protect public health on their own. And in small, independent restaurants, it’s nearly impossible for workers to organize to better their working conditions.”

To the publication’s observation, electing to close is no easy call for smaller restaurants that have spent months in the dark and have mounting costs tied to safety precautions, like PPE. It presents two jarring options in the moment: Close and try not to go bankrupt, or try not to get anybody else sick. And employees often struggle to feel empowered.

For restaurants, having a plan in place before the unfortunate circumstance arrives, and it probably will, especially during dine-in reopening phases, is an essential conversation to have.

Rewards Network released a guide on protocols to take in order to ensure the health and safety of staff and customers. Here are some ways to get started:

Communication. “It is vital to show your support and concern for all of your staff’s safety and health during this unpredictable time,” the company said. “Whether it’s mandated by your local government, or just the right thing to do, we encourage you and your teams to adopt a series of cleaning and safety measures to keep your staff and guests as safe as possible.”

Church’s Chicken EVP of franchise and company operations, Pete Sevold, wrote in a recent letter that franchisees expressed concern to corporate over having enough employees to take on additional safety-focused tasks, particularly if they needed to self-quarantine. In response, Church’s OK’d a limited menu. Darden used these past few months to simplify its menu and operations as well.

Whether a restaurant’s market requires additional protocols or not, social media is the great word-of-mouth equalizer. Send a sick employee home, stay open, and wait for the message to spread among the rest of the staff. Trying to contain something like that is often a losing proposition. Especially if it’s a brand with considerable clout and equity. Not temporarily closing, or responding to a sick employee, could evolve into a viral moment that’s difficult to backtrack from. Getting franchisees on board with this, as the McDonald’s example proves, is critical, too.

Church’s, which has a 70-page reopening guide, has taken the reverse approach, hosting efforts like ice cream parties, appreciation days, T-shirt giveaways, and other gestures to “remind our people that they do matter,” Sevold said.

“In the absence of clear governmental protocols that cover both front-of-house and back-of-house procedures that prioritize people’s safety, it’s up to all of us to act in each other’s best interests,” he added. “Our employees are not comfortable refusing service to guests without masks. So, we’re keeping dining rooms closed until our managers tell us there is a solution in place—not just for guest safety but our employees’ safety, too.”

If an employee is diagnosed with coronavirus, Rewards Network stresses restaurants ensure they’re taking the correct steps to quarantine until a negative diagnosis is reached. Go beyond just sending them home. Stay in touch throughout the recovery process. They’ll appreciate it, and other employees will see first-hand how seriously the restaurant is taking their health and well-being into account, not just the bottom line.

Keep the rest of the staff informed as well, especially those who came into contact with the sick employee. This way, they can monitor their health acutely and stay home if they don’t feel comfortable returning. Give them the option to quarantine. The CDC outlines for employees who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 straight minutes to stay home for two weeks. It might be difficult to staff in those situations, but it’s worth the burden. In a climate like this, restaurants don’t want to “force” employees to show up. There are plenty of other options available, like not working, with expanded unemployment benefits where they can likely make more out of the restaurant. After months of hoping workers would show back up and touting stability, don’t give them reason to second guess their dedication.

In terms of closing, Rewards Network suggests using the time to conduct a deep cleaning and increase safety measures and protocols. Unlike some other food-safety concerns, COVID-19 is a one-to-one virus. There’s no evidence it spreads from food. So, in practice, closing for a single day to clean should take care of the problem as long as the infected employee is out of the restaurant. But the real issue, at that point, would be who did they infect? Does the entire staff have it? What if they’re a carrier who doesn’t show symptoms?

If it’s unreasonable to “deep clean” in an entire day, hiring outside vendors might be worth the cost compared to a lengthier closure.

Moving forward, restaurants should develop regular cleaning schedules for all surfaces, like counters, tables, and prep spaces; high-touch areas such as doorknobs, sink faucets, credit card scanners, and pay attention to the smallest details. Think latches on restroom stalls. All these things should become part of the rotation.

It’s crucial to make sure employees understand the steps taken to protect their health and know to monitor theirs as well, so there will be some confidence when the restaurant reopens after a second closure. It might also be wise to add something to previous protocols, just to heighten awareness and acknowledge there was a gap before. Perhaps it’s time to switch to gloves only or designate one door for entry and one for exit. Or a new crowd control bathroom policy. And so forth. If there was an initiative mulled over earlier that didn’t make the final cut, employees will notice the extra effort and mea culpa, even if the positive case had nothing to do with the restaurant in the first place.

If the restaurant does choose to stay open, Rewards Network recommends taking each employee’s temperature at the start of their shift and to not allow any worker in the restaurant with a fever or any symptoms. Look to supplement sick staff with new hires or those put on furlough.

Don’t forget customers, either. If an employee gets sick, keep an open line of communication with guests, Rewards Network said. Stay transparent, no matter how embarrassing the error might be. Guests finding out on Twitter is worse.

Even a positive case can be spun to show how safe the restaurant is. “Assure your patrons that you’re taking all the necessary precautions to create a safe restaurant environment,” Rewards Network said. “Reiterate on your website, emails, and social media pages that this issue was uncovered because you are regularly and diligently monitoring your staff.”

In other terms, “we found out because we’re so keyed in.” There being a rogue, unnoticed positive case would be a harsher reality and much scarier for guests. People don’t need two invisible enemies in the room.

If the restaurant does close, upon reopening, leverage social media, email, and website channels to let customers know you’re back. It’s also a smart idea, Rewards Network noted, to list the safety measures in place (here’s where a new measure could come in handy) to ease guests’ trepidation. “Also, you can update all of your restaurant’s delivery, takeout, and marketing collateral/platforms, too,” Rewards Network said.

As we’ve found out throughout the pandemic, though, customers are more forgiving than they used to be. They get these are unprecedented times. Yet if they discover a restaurant tried to brush cases under the rug, it’s a different perception story.

Rewards Network offered some new safety protocols to put into place:

  • Taking all employees’ temperatures when they arrive for their shift and again before the restaurant opens for service, logging the results daily.

If they have a temperature of 100.4 or higher, or any symptoms of COVID-19, norovirus, or other contagious illnesses, including fever, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, etc. send them home, says Francine L. Shaw is president of Savvy Food Safety, Inc.

  • Requiring employees to wear a protective shield or face mask at all times when they are at your establishment.
  • Allowing anyone who is feeling ill to stay home, no exceptions.
  • If employees are sick with symptoms of COVID-19 or a fever, they must self-quarantine for 14 days or provide a negative test result before returning to work.
  • Constant coaching on handwashing and sanitizing.

Shaw suggests washing with soap and warm water for a minimum of 30 seconds. “Wash hands frequently, including after using the restroom, using cleaning products, coughing/sneezing, or touching money, cell phones, doorknobs, or any other potentially contaminated surface. Additionally, wash your hands thoroughly after touching raw proteins [e.g., poultry, meats, seafood, eggs] to prevent foodborne illnesses and possible cross-contamination,” she says.

  • Providing disposable single-use menus at each table.
  • Showcasing welcome signs that reference table cleanliness and safety precautions.
  • Placing personal sanitizers on each table and at each service station.
  • Clearly display social distancing markers on floor.

Shaw also recommends taking a digital approach to some old task. “Digital auditing, inspection, and quality management tools are essential to maximize the health and safety of your company, employees, and guests. Digital tools help ensure that critical safety protocols are being followed correctly and provide numerous advantages over antiquated pen and paper systems,” she says. “As restaurants shift the way they operate—adding COVID-19 protocols to their existing food safety operations—digital tools will provide significant benefits, including accuracy and transparency.