Since restaurants reopened at limited capacity a little more than a month ago, there’s been a slow trickle of business owners announcing that a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
Reid’s SouthPark, Stagioni, The Waterman, Resident Culture Brewing, and Suárez Bakery are among the establishments that confirmed cases of the virus publicly — on social media, via customer email lists, and in press releases to media.
“Today, we received what seems like inevitable news in these current times,” Resident Culture posted on June 19 on its Instagram page.
The word “inevitable” echoed in the statements from numerous restaurant owners who’ve had a confirmed case. Those who haven’t say it’s only a matter of time, even with thorough cleaning practices and state-mandated wellness screenings.
Daily cases have been on the rise. On June 30, Mecklenburg County reported the highest number of new cases yet with 387. That’s almost 100 more than the next highest day, June 23.
“Just the way it’s going, a lot of us will catch Covid at some point,” says restauranteur Frank Scibelli. He’s the owner of FS Food Group, which includes Mama Ricotta’s, Little Mama’s, Yafo, Midwood Smokehouse, and Paco’s Tacos.
Scibelli’s had a number of isolated cases within the staff of his Charlotte-area restaurants. In each one, his first step is to call the county health department and speak with his newly hired in-house health consultant.
Unlike other local restaurants, though, Scibelli hasn’t sent out press releases or closed restaurants. “If the health department says to close, we close,” Scibelli says. So far, they haven’t had to.
“We try to be very thoughtful as a company. We try to gather data before we make decisions,” he says. “We’re in the food business. … The public health officials, this is what they do. So we listen to what they say.”
State and local laws don’t require businesses to publicly announce cases — nor do they require closures.
Here’s what restaurants are required to do, according to the state health department:
- Ensure social distancing is possible with seating at least six feet apart.
- Limit capacity to 50 percent, at least until phase three, which is scheduled to begin on July 17.
- Enforce mask wearing for all staff members. All customers should also wear a mask when not at their table, unless an exception applies. [FAQ: North Carolina’s mask mandate]
- Disinfect the restaurant, especially high-touch areas, routinely.
- Conduct daily wellness checks with staff and send any staff member with symptoms home immediately.
- Post signage with information about social distancing, COVID-19 symptoms, social distancing, and more.
Any other changes you may have seen a restaurant make during the coronavirus pandemic — such as temperature checks for guests and contactless menus — are optional.
[Related Agenda guide: Here’s what it’s like to dine out in Charlotte right now]
So is the level of transparency a restaurant is comfortable with. Scibelli, for example, says he’s wary of making a public announcement in order to respect staff member’s privacy.
Like Scibelli’s restaurants, Suárez Bakery remains open after announcing a case on Tuesday afternoon.
Owner Carlos Suárez says he first learned of the case “over the weekend.” On Monday, June 29, the Agenda received two anonymous emails about the case, prompting our requests for comment.
In an email on Tuesday night, Suárez said:
“We immediately excused the affected employee and close-contact employees from all shifts pending negative test results. We began coordinating staff tests immediately, starting with close-contact employees. Any employee who called out of work for any reason in the past week has been asked not to return to work until cleared with a negative test result. Additionally, our shop was cleaned and disinfected … and remaining, non-symptomatic employees are working staggered shifts, wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and following sanitizing protocols.
“While there is no requirement to disclose any employee’s health status, we decided to make a voluntary announcement only after all appropriate measures had been taken to ensure the health and safety of our team and guests.”
Many restaurant owners say it’s a matter of principle to be upfront with a coronavirus case. “It’s not fair to not be transparent when this is a very real issue,” says Jay Levell, co-founder of White Point Partners, which developed Optimist Hall.
On Monday, the food hall announced that an asymptomatic staff member of The Dumpling Lady food stall had tested positive. The stall remains closed as it awaits test results from the rest of the staff.
Optimist Hall, however, is open. The protocol here, and in every dining establishment, is a balancing act.
Safety of guests and staff is paramount, Levell says. “There are no gray areas here,” he says. “(Tenants are) not allowed to reopen until each employee has a negative test.”
This, paired with ongoing disinfecting processes, mask enforcement, and an emphasis on social distancing and takeout reduces the risk of the virus spreading.
Still there are questions: What about shared bathrooms and other common spaces?
White Point co-founder Erik Johnson says it’s not much different than going to the grocery store. Even with thorough cleaning practices, he says, “there’s going to be some level of risk there.”
On the other hand, the food hall is full of small businesses, businesses that have lost significant revenue during the coronavirus pandemic. If the health department doesn’t order them to close, Levell and Johnson see staying open as another way to support the hall’s tenants.
[Related Agenda guide: Everything you need to know about Optimist Hall]
Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to dining out during the coronavirus pandemic — some cook exclusively at home, some stick to takeout, and some feel safe dining out. Some North Carolinians think the state is overreacting. Some think it’s under-reacting.
Perhaps nowhere are those contrasting narratives clearer than the comments section on any coronavirus-related social media post.
Take, the Agenda’s Instagram post on Monday about the positive case at The Dumpling Lady.
“Shut the inside down and only allow the drive thru again like before,” one commenter said. Another user commented, “I love Dumpling Lady so much tbh I’ll catch the Rona for it.”
Restauranteur Bruce Moffett was worried about what the response would be like when he announced that a Stagioni staff member had tested positive on June 18.
“I was pretty nervous,” he says. “Every time Stagioni has a slow night now, I wonder if it’s because we chose to do that.”
He stands by his decision, though.
“At the end of the day, if one of my customers or one of my staff members gets sick and dies because I was more concerned with keeping my doors open, I don’t think I could live with myself.”
Much of what the business owners I talked to boiled down this: doing the right thing.
In Scibelli’s case, he believes the right thing was to listen to health officials, disinfect thoroughly, and be discreet in order to protect the livelihood and privacy of employees.
Restaurants are already operating at 50 percent capacity; a confirmed case could lead to fewer guests, fewer tips, and fewer shifts.
Moffett says business at Stagioni is down about 40 percent since the confirmed case. “It doesn’t really seem sustainable, but hopefully we can sustain it until things get a little better.”