In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, many Dallas-area restaurants diligently wrote public alerts every time an employee fell ill with the disease. But as cases surge, hospitals fill and the government response falters, restaurant owners are facing a new logic: Cases may be too common to report.
And as local restaurants increasingly choose not to disclose coronavirus cases, diners face a new question: If workers at nearly every restaurant in the city are sick, and the causes cannot be traced, how can a business’ safety be judged?
As some owners and employees take to the internet to disclose sick colleagues, others suggest restaurants hit by coronavirus are the new normal, rather than an exception.
June 26, Nick and Sam’s steakhouse in Uptown announced it was closing for five days “due to the rise of COVID-19.”
“We will be deep cleaning the restaurant and reevaluating the operational procedures we currently have in place,” the Nick and Sam’s statement said.
The public statement did not mention any sick employees, but co-owner Joseph Palladino confirms there have been more than 20 positive tests on the staff so far, with results expected soon from a third round of testing.
“I’m up to like 22 people,” Palladino says. “Once that happened and we got the results and we let everyone know, people started getting nervous and panicking. I said, 'Hey, let’s pull the plug, let’s shut down.' The only problem with all of this is I’m not in charge of where everybody goes when they leave me. I don’t know where they got it from at what time, if the exposure has anything to do with the restaurant or something else.”
The steakhouse’s owners are discussing how to communicate coronavirus updates with guests in the future. Palladino says he wants to balance reassuring guests that safety precautions are being taken with oversharing or overwhelming them. He plans to continue testing regularly.
At least one establishment that temporarily closed did not even publicize its closure. Meddlesome Moth shut down for two weeks but never posted information about its hiatus on its website or social media feeds.
Five current and former employees reached out to the Observer to discuss the situation at Moth.
“I don’t understand why, especially now that Moth has been closed for two weeks, they don’t think people know why this place is randomly closed,” one current employee said on condition of anonymity. “They’re calling the reservations and saying that they’re closed that way. But we thrive on walk-ins. That’s a lot of people walking up to the door and the door being locked.”
Disgruntled employees at several restaurants took to social media to disclose coronavirus cases, usually anonymously. A Reddit user claiming to be an insider at Nick and Sam’s posted a warning advising Redditors to stay away. The user did not respond to a request for comment, and their connection to the restaurant cannot be verified.
“I tested the entire company,” Palladino says. “I paid — hell, it was close to $30,000. It was pretty pricey. But our employees are worth it. They’re committed to us; it’s the least we can do. I’m prepared as an owner to say 'Hey, you know what? I’ll do it again.' I have an obligation.”
Palladino adds that the steakhouse has paid for both subsequent rounds of testing so far.
June 15, the Instagram account Dallasites101 posted a story claiming three employees of upscale Italian restaurant The Charles had tested positive. The following day, The Charles owner Chas Martin gave a statement on the restaurant’s Facebook page disclosing two positive tests and outlining the restaurant’s safety procedures.
But one current employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Observer that the restaurant had five workers test positive, not two or three.
The employee said positive tests came even though the restaurant was taking extraordinary precautions, including more than 30 hours of safety training on new protocols. The employee indicated empathy for both coworkers and owners in a world where nearly every restaurant is affected by the novel coronavirus.
“I feel like this industry isn’t safe anymore,” the employee said. “Not that The Charles isn’t doing everything it can. We are wrist-deep in strangers’ food all day. I don’t know how we aren’t all infected already.”
The Charles representatives did not respond to multiple interview requests.
A Meddlesome Moth staff member said the company paid for an initial round of testing for each employee, then requested that staff take free tests in the future. Two current employees said that they had paid for tests that supply results more quickly in order to return to work.
“I paid for my test, and I’m not expecting reimbursement for that,” one employee said.
The restaurant’s co-owner, Shannon Wynne, replied that all the employee has to do is ask.
“Not only did we give them all the places that were testing free, but we told them that if there was any charge that their insurance didn’t cover, that we would pay for it on a deductible,” Wynne said. “We smothered them with options on where to get tested.”
Wynne added that as outbreaks only grow more frequent, he doesn’t think restaurants can survive the burden of constant test payments.
“We paid $3,000 the first day that people got tested, then came to find out that their insurance would cover it,” he explained. “They have insurance. The tests are free. Go to CVS, you can get one. We can’t have an entire population of staff tested at $250 a head every time there’s an outbreak.”
A former Moth employee reported coming into contact with a colleague who tested positive, but not being told about it.
“We weren’t wearing masks or gloves or anything,” the former employee said of the encounter. “Nobody from the company reached out to me to tell me that I had come in contact with someone who had COVID. If my coworkers hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known that there was a chance I could get it and be spreading it to other people.”
“There’s no way to track the virus,” Wynne said. “This is not a forum for finger-pointing.”
Palladino says he has been frustrated in his efforts to determine how the virus arrived at and spread around Nick and Sam’s, where tables have remained in high demand throughout the pandemic.
“Nobody can guarantee anything,” Palladino says. “You don’t know where the person goes the next day. You can’t guarantee this. All I can do is, with the information I have, to say that we’re doing the best we possibly can. There are no guarantees. I’m trying to guarantee it, but I can’t. But I’m going to do my part to get as close as possible.”
The owners’ comments about tracking cases are set against a backdrop of state and federal governments that have generally failed their oversight responsibilities. State and local agencies are rarely able to trace contact between sick individuals.
As numerous columnists have pointed out, individual restaurant owners are now responsible for making decisions that would usually be trusted to government authorities. The Observer has spoken to owners in the past about how they feel being left to make decisions with conflicting advice from differing experts.
“All we can do is the best of what we’ve been told to do,” Wynne said. “We’ve been told several different things, and the law has changed twice now while we’re doing this. They relaxed the law, and now they’ve increased the law. We can only do what they’ve asked us to do.”
A current employee at Rodeo Goat, which is part of the same restaurant group as Meddlesome Moth, believes that nobody at the restaurant has yet contracted coronavirus — but even if someone had, the employee was not sure that anyone would know. Rodeo Goat, the source said, is asking staffers to report their test results on a sort of honor system.
“As far as when people are allowed to return to work, they don’t ask for any proof,” the employee said. “All you do is call up and say, hey, I’m negative. I’m assuming that a lot of people aren’t [getting tested] because they don’t want to pay that $150 out of pocket. I’m pretty sure that they are waiting a couple days and coming back.”
Wynne called that hypothetical “preposterous,” noting that a sick employee could not simply return to work and start serving customers.
“We test everybody that comes in for their temperature every day,” he said. “So if you’re going to come in claiming that you’re clean and we test you and you’ve got a fever, we test you and send you right home.”
The Rodeo Goat employee said that between the pressure to earn a paycheck, turn tables and satisfy often-entitled or troublemaking customers, the job has become vastly more stressful. The Rodeo Goat employee says shifts have become longer, too, as frustrated or worried coworkers quit.
“I had an anxiety attack the other day waiting tables,” the Rodeo Goat employee said. “I was made completely uncomfortable by the situation.”
Wynne says uncomfortable employees can stay home, but he does agree with his staff that customers pose the biggest safety challenge in his restaurants.
“The Typhoid Mary in this situation is less likely to be a masked employee who has been scrubbing everything down, than an unmasked customer,” he said. “There are many more of them than there are of us. I think the scrutiny has been put on the employees rather than the guests who have been coming into the restaurant. Not only is that mathematically unsound, it’s unfair.”
Wynne added, “The only resentment that I have as far as the law is concerned is the government expecting us to marshal people around the restaurant. We’re waiting tables and cooking food. We don’t have time to monitor everyone. It’s not our job to police them. We don’t let them in a door without a mask on, and then they have to be seated to take it off. But people will be people.”
The Charles’ employee — one of three employees interviewed for this story who indicated that they are looking for jobs in other industries — suspects that as coronavirus cases become more common, restaurants will stop disclosing them.
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“I’m not confident that full transparency is going to be the norm moving forward in high-risk dining environments,” the employee said. “Announcing it might become monotonous. The service industry can’t just shut its doors every few weeks when another server sticks his hand in the wrong plate.”
But Wynne describes an even starker possibility: That change has already happened.
“Believe me, there are other restaurants I know that claim they have no COVID cases,” he said. “That’s all BS. They all have COVID cases. They have to decide whether they feel it necessary to contact a bunch of people that could have brought the virus in, because we don’t know who did. It is really an unfair requirement of any restaurant to make a post to that extent. But to do the responsible thing is to close, have everybody tested, which we did, completely disinfect the entire restaurant, and when everyone has tested negative, then you get to reopen.”
Wynne added, “I don’t know of one restaurant yet that has not had a case.”