Last Saturday, the parking lot of the usually bustling Grillbird Teriyaki sat vacant. The only hint of life was the sound of DJ Khaled pulsating throughout the empty restaurant to entertain two bored workers who were sanitizing “every inch” of the kitchen. Their boss Matt Parker was propped on a two-step stool, wiping windows.
Patrons got the explanation by the door: “On Wednesday, July 8, a staff member at Grillbird tested positive for COVID-19. This individual was not customer-facing and was immediately sent home to recover. Our entire staff will receive testing over the next couple days. As a result of this positive test, we will be closing our doors temporarily so that we can wait for the results and disinfect/clean the restaurant.”
Four miles northwest, another West Seattle restaurant, Duke’s Seafood, also shuttered on July 8, but not by choice. Unlike Grillbird, the seafood restaurant by Alki Beach had encouraged employees not to get tested and to come to work even though one server was already sick from the virus, according to a staff memo shared with The Seattle Times. Two workers interviewed said they feared an outbreak would occur because management was so lax. A week later, a health inspector shut down Duke’s after seven employees tested positive for COVID-19.
The differences in how both restaurants handled their coronavirus cases exemplify a burgeoning issue. Across the board, there’s no consistency in how cafes, wine bars and eateries are dealing with cases of infected employees or coronavirus safety issues because, restaurateurs say, there’s been very little direction from the state, and often, murky instructions from county health departments. Yet, as evidenced again on Thursday, when Gov. Jay Inslee’s new phase restrictions included an order to limit indoor dining to “members of the same household,” the state continues to put the onus on restaurants to figure out how to enforce these ever-evolving coronavirus operations policies.
For instance, in Washington state, restaurant employees are not required to get tested for coronavirus. And if a worker tests positive, the restaurant can make its own decision on whether to close.
By contrast, in Washington D.C., an eatery with an infected employee must shut down for up to 48 hours for deep cleaning and can only reopen with the approval of the health department.
Overall, several restaurateurs said, the rules in Washington state are perplexing for the service industry, which must bone up on epidemiology best practices on the fly, while managing dining rooms, kitchens and crowd control at a time when the virus is spreading around the state at an alarming rate. The increase in cases is concerning enough that Inslee has paused phase progressions throughout the state until at least July 28. Many restaurateurs fear Inslee will lay down the hammer like his counterparts did in states such as California and Texas, where restaurants were forced to shut down again to control the pandemic.
Little direction, lack of consistency
At a time when they need clearer guidance, restaurant owners say the rules are maddeningly inconsistent even from county to county.
Consequently, many have drawn up playbooks on the fly. Earlier this month, Supreme pizza closed its University District branch after a worker tested positive. As a safety precaution, the pizza parlor also shut its West Seattle branch.
In Lower Queen Anne, after a Buckley’s cook tested positive, management admitted that they kept the news from the public. Management sent the cook home to quarantine and tested other employees while business continued as usual.
On Beacon Hill, Petite Soif wine bar and Homer restaurant closed temporarily because they each discovered cases of an employee coming into contact with someone outside of work who had tested positive.
Meanwhile, after an employee tested positive at El Gaucho in Tacoma, the chain said it followed all prescribed social contact tracing and quarantine procedures but was surprised to find the local health department wanted the steakhouse to close for 24 hours.
Chad Mackay, CEO of Fire & Vine Hospitality, which owns El Gaucho, said neither he nor human resources could find any rules on the books stating that they had to close. In King and Walla Walla counties, where Mackay also owns restaurants, owners are not required to shut down when an employee tests positive, he said.
A spokesperson for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department explained that its facilities team only “recommended” El Gaucho close for 24 hours — partly to buy the county more time to investigate further. If the restaurant did not comply, health inspectors would report El Gaucho to the state for not following its recommendation.
To remain in good standing, Mackay shut down the business six minutes after doors opened on a Saturday, its busiest night when it had 180 covers on the books.
After the incident, Mackay and the Washington Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants and hotels, met with county and state health officials to request clearer and consistent guidelines across all counties.
In a released statement, a spokesperson for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said the “Department of Health is working on additional guidance to support consistent recommendations across jurisdictions.”
Officials from the state health department did not respond to interview requests as of press time. But in what veteran restaurateurs say is the clearest directive to date, the governor’s updated Safe Start Plan released this month declares that employers including restaurants don’t have to notify the local health department unless “two or more” employees contract COVID-19 within a span of 14 days.
Mackay praised county and state officials for trying to get on the same page on COVID enforcement. “It is new for all of us. I get it,” he said. “Getting in alignment with all the counties is really critical.”
Learning lessons on the fly
In King County, which is in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, restaurants can operate at half capacity inside and outside (no parties of more than five, tables must be 6 feet apart). But as many veteran restaurateurs reiterated, those mandates aren’t practical. Cooks work in cramped kitchens where 6 feet of separation is sometimes impossible. Diners don’t wear masks after being seated. Servers often get closer than 6 feet so diners can hear them.
Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, and a leading expert on how COVID-19 affects workplaces, warns that Seattle should brace for more restaurant workers and diners to contract the coronavirus during this pandemic. “The virus is very much here and spreading,” she said. “We have indoor dining, and as we know, the virus spreads more easily indoors … Personally, I wouldn’t want to eat indoors right now.”
Even if restaurants follow all the tips recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), restaurateurs can’t enforce social distancing for their workers outside of the workplace, she said.
The perilous task of operating in this climate has Seattle restaurant owners studying up on CDC guidelines and brainstorming over social media with their colleagues. Many worry for worker safety and wonder whether diners would be too skittish to eat at their establishments again if an employee were infected.
One widely circulated guideline many industry insiders are studying is the “COVID closure lessons learned” memo that Fremont Brewing wrote and shared with the brewing community.
Last month, the popular brewery closed its facilities in Fremont and Ballard for five days after a server in its beer garden tested positive for coronavirus.
But looking back, Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson said it’s not practical to close every time someone tests positive given the likelihood this could happen again in a pandemic. Instead, going forward, how much contact the infected employee had with co-workers and customers will factor greatly into whether they stay open or close, she said.
Nelson also recommends hiring a epidemiologist to help navigate. In the brewery’s case, the specialist drew up new safety guidelines based on the brewery’s layout in the taproom and production facility, organizational charts and workflow, with descriptions of every worker and how much exposure every server and warehouse worker has with each other. Hiring a specialist “cost us less money” than “the tens of thousands of dollars” the brewery lost for shuttering, she said.
The worst breakout so far in the restaurant industry occurred in early July at Duke’s in West Seattle.
Two servers at Duke’s told The Seattle Times that management aggressively pushed to have every table (almost 40 tables indoors, along the sidewalk and on the patio) filled despite the state’s mandate that seating in Phase 2 should not exceed 50% capacity. One server also sent The Seattle Times a cellphone photo that shows Duke’s outdoor deck filled with several parties of diners not seated 6 feet apart from one another as mandated under the state’s reopening plan. That server said management even added more seating on its patio, prime real estate with a beach view, to squeeze in more diners. County health inspectors came on July 5 and confirmed many of the violations the servers had reported.
On July 8, the health department shut down the restaurant after a cluster of seven positive cases. So far, no diner has reportedly caught the virus from Duke’s, the health department said. Duke’s was allowed to reopen a week later after management drew up a detailed plan on how the tables would be spaced out and got all their employees tested.
At Grillbird Teriyaki in High Point, which drew long lines during its debut a month before the pandemic, Parker heard enough horror stories that he reached out to his staff one morning.
“I want everyone to get tested this week. I want us to know and have a peace of mind that we are all OK,” Parker said. Three days later, during lunch, his cook got a call saying his test had come back positive. The cook took off his apron and left through the back door to avoid contact with customers while his colleagues filled all remaining takeout orders; and the doors were locked 15 minutes later, Parker said.
His cook quarantined for two weeks and after a recent negative test, rejoined the team during its reopening this past Friday, Parker said.
“I’m not going to lie. We’re going to take a hit,” said Parker, who estimated the two-week closure cost him more than $50,000 in perishable inventory, sales and cleaning bills. ”Restaurants are a low-margin business and incredibly expensive to operate.”
But a tenet for a mom-and-pop shop is putting people above profit, he said.
“I live here,” Parker said. “My kids go to the same school that our customers go to. We have relationships with these people and have built a trust with them.”