How Cincinnati Restaurants Are Handling the Influx of Coronavirus Cases in the Hospitality Industry

On Tuesday, Thunderdome Restaurant Group confirmed rumors which had been circulating on social media and Reddit of employees contracting COVID-19. And they weren't the only OTR restaurant to have staff test positive for the virus this week.

click to enlarge Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine - Photo: CityBeat
Photo: CityBeat
Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine

On Tuesday, Thunderdome Restaurant Group confirmed rumors which had been circulating on social media and Reddit of employees contracting COVID-19. They weren't the only Over-the-Rhine restaurant to have staff test positive for the virus this week, but they seem to be the first and have been receiving the most backlash for a perceived cover-up — from both industry workers and the public.

The post made Monday on Reddit said: 

My roommate works at the Eagle in OTR. She says there have been several employees that have the coronavirus and the owners are threatening everyone to not talk about it and keep it quiet. She says the same thing is happening down the street at Bakersfield. She's both scared of going to work and scared of losing her job again after the shutdown. Most of her coworkers are young and some aren't taking precautions seriously. If there are outbreaks happening in those restaurants, there may be others in the neighborhood that are being kept quiet from the public. Stay safe everyone!

And conversation continued on platforms like Twitter:


An excerpt from the Thunderdome reply, published on Facebook, says: 

We’ve seen an overwhelming amount of false information being spread online about our restaurant group. In the name of full transparency, we’ve spent the last couple days gathering all the factual information we can to answer your questions.

We’ve had two confirmed cases of team members that have tested positive for COVID; one team member at The Eagle and one team member at Bakersfield.

We can confirm these individuals NEVER worked a shift in the restaurants while exhibiting symptoms.

As soon as we received notification of positive COVID tests, we spent the weekend gathering information, conducting an internal investigation, notifying team members, and continuing our safety practices and procedures.

The timely discovery of these cases and quick response can be credited directly to the rigorous training on safety procedures that our team members received prior to reopening our restaurants.

The safety of our team members and guests has always been at the root of every decision we’ve made from the onset of this global health crisis. We have never forced team members to work if they felt uncomfortable or ill.

Issues related to operational safety date back to the announcement of restaurant closures in the state of Ohio on March 15, according to a recent longtime Thunderdome employee who spoke with CityBeat on the condition of anonymity.

“I saw what was coming and I started talking about it with people above me,” the source said. “You want to talk about the perfect environment for a virus to spread? That’s the restaurant or a bar. There was a lot of denial. There was a lot of, ‘Oh, this is overreaction, restaurants are the safest places, we’re held to these strict health codes.’ I was kind of disturbed by the rhetoric I was hearing, like, ‘Oh we’re just going to deny it, it’s not that big of a deal.’

“Just like, at some point, who's looking out for the people that you built your fortune on their backs? Like, who's looking out for people?”

Thunderdome closed all restaurant operations, including carry-out, on March 20. At the time, the group’s three co-founders and owners, Alex Blust and brothers Joe and John Lanni, made local news in the Cincinnati Business Courier with the announcement that they were donating their combined salaries to employees furloughed as a result. 

"We want people to feel safe and comfortable coming in to work,” Joe Lanni is quoted as saying in the interview with the Courier

In the May 7 issue of CityBeat, Joe said of Thunderdome’s initial decision to completely shutdown, “There was a lot of fear surrounding the situation. ‘Am I going to get sick? Is this safe? Is it socially responsible to even be asking our team to do this, asking our customers to come here?’ There were no practices at that point."

Joe was interviewed on April 29 for the story. He outlined a gradual reopening plan for carry-out and delivery in the article.

Then Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced the Responsible ReStart Ohio plan on May 7. The guidelines for restaurants allowed for outdoor dining to resume on May 15, and dine-in service to begin on May 21 with COVID-19 health and safety protocols in place. (You can read all the requirements at coronavirus.ohio.gov.)

In the Responsible ReStart Ohio guidelines, restaurants are required to contact their local health department about suspected or confirmed cases of the coronavirus among their staff, but they are not required to tell the public. It also does not say they are required to tell other employees. However, employees are required to stay at home if they're symptomatic. And Cincinnati Health Department Director of Environmental Health Antonio Young says restaurants need to be conducting health assessments on their workers and making sure they are following safety guidelines. 

"If they aren’t doing that, that’s a problem from the get go," he says.

In Twitter replies asking about sick employees and health and safety practices, Thunderdome said:




If a restaurant has an employee test positive for COVID19, the Cincinnati Health Department, in accordance with Ohio Department of Health guidance, requires restaurants to close in order to perform a “deep cleaning” by a professional company — when possible. 

“(This) means that it’s not mandated that you are shutdown,” said Marla Huston Fuller, director of communications and governmental relations with the health department. “It’s encouraged that you’re shutdown, but it’s not mandatory.”

After this cleaning and sanitizing has taken place, health department inspection staff will verify it occurred.

On Monday, the Cincinnati Business Courier reported that Revolution Rotisserie temporarily closed both of its locations (in Over-the-Rhine and Pleasant Ridge) after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. On Tuesday, chef Daniel Wright of the Queen City Hospitality Group, whose restaurants include Senate, Abigail Street, Pontiac and Forty Thieves, announced he was closing his restaurants temporarily to preemptively have all employees tested after an employee at Pontiac informed him of potentially testing positive for COVID-19. Rhinegeist also closed its taproom for a portion of this week after employees there tested positive for the coronavirus.

Some bars have preemptively addressed the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the area, including Longfellow and the Samuel Adams Cincinnati Taproom. Longfellow decided to close their outdoor seating and focus strictly on carry-out this weekend and Sam Adams closed their taproom for a week (starting June 24).

MadTree Brewing in Oakley recently notified the public that a customer tested positive for COVID-19. In a Facebook post, they wrote: "The Cincinnati Health Department notified us today that a guest who visited our taproom on Friday, June 19 tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday. We understand that they were seated on our outdoor patio between approximately 6:30pm - 10:00pm. We do not know if they were positive during their visit as the Health Department cannot share any additional information. We can assure you that the individual's temperature was below 100.4 when they entered, as we test every guest. If you have been to our taproom, you know that we take precautions very seriously and go above and beyond Health Department Guidelines."

Young said the Cincinnati Health Department is here as a partner in education for restaurants to help them understand how to navigate COVID-19 safety, and said there are also plenty of resources available online — including via the Centers for Disease Control and Ohio Department of Health. The Cincinnati Health Department isn't an authoritarian regime, he said, it's here to assist people. But he also said that restaurants can't say they don't know this stuff.

When the health department and the chamber of commerce scheduled a webinar to inform restaurants and bars about all the COVID updates before businesses were allowed to reopen, he said only three people signed up. He said they'd offer an instructional webinar again, most likely, if there was interest or a continued uptick in positive cases.

You can check health department restaurant inspection records at cincinnati-oh.gov/noncms/health/inspection. As of now, there are no inspection records for any of the restaurants that would include the timeframe overlapping with the employee complaints or COVID diagnoses. There is a record for The Eagle with a violation on June 16; that violation was corrected on site. There is no comment about any COVID violation.

Young said COVID is not currently listed in the State of Ohio Uniform Food Safety Code, so it may not show up on those searchable public records. Inspectors, however, may report it in their comments and post it to the system. 

COVID isn't one of the handful of diseases food workers are mandated to tell their employers they've been diagnosed with, according to the safety code. Those disease are campylobacter, cryptosporidium, cyclospora, entamoeba histolytica, shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, giardia, hepatitis A, norovirus, salmonella spp, salmonella Typhi, shigella spp., vibrio cholerae and yersinia.

Will that change as more and more restaurant and bar employees test positive for COVID-19? Young says that's up to the governor. The Ohio Department of Health can also call for changes or updates to the uniform food safety code.

As of right now, when the Cincinnati Health Department is called to investigate a possible COVID violation, they are primarily checking for social distancing, mask use, correct disinfecting practices, etc. If there has been a report of a sick employee or a suspected or confirmed positive case of coronavirus, they will first make sure that employee is no longer on premises, and then they move on to contact tracing. Like anyone else, an employee confirmed or suspected of having the coronavirus is asked to get a test and self-quarantine for at least 14 days (until they have gone 72 hours without symptoms).

Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order that expanded the definition of “good cause” for employees not to return to work and to be able to seek unemployment. Two of the reasons included in the order are: “There is tangible evidence of a health and safety violation by the employer that does not allow the employee to practice social distancing, hygiene, and wearing personal protective equipment;” and “The individual has been potentially exposed to COVID-19 and subject to a quarantine period as prescribed by a medical or health professional.”

If employees or anyone feels that a business is not complying with COVID-19 safety protocols, they can and should contact the Cincinnati Health Department at 513-357-7462 or via email at [email protected].

Thunderdome, for their part, addressed the realities of why they wouldn't be closing their restaurants in a statement: 

As a society, if the expectation is that any business which has a confirmed case of COVID must continuously close and reopen, it creates an impossible environment in which to operate. We all assume some level of personal risk when we leave our homes whether it is to grocery shop or go to the home improvement store or go to work. The reality is, that all any business can do, is take every possible precaution to limit risk for team members and guests within their four walls. This is what we have done to the best of our ability.

 




CityBeat reached out to Joe Lanni for additional comment but calls were not returned before publication.

 

 

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