At the restaurant, test Test one, two, three times a week

AT Ban Siam, rapid home test kits for COVID-19 are as readily available to staff as Singha beer is to customers. The Thai restaurant in Mount Vernon Triangle began ordering bulk tests on Dec. 10 when it first heard about the omicron variant. Now, whenever an employee feels sick or a little tired, they can test when they report to work. “We’re handing out these things like candy,” says the managing partner Tom Healy.

The restaurant took COVID precautions seriously from the start of the pandemic and has gone two years without any closures related to employees testing positive. But when omicron arrived, the highly contagious variant forced them to speed up their strategy. “Omicron shattered everyone’s plans of how to protect themselves, so we moved to mass testing,” Healy says.

Baan Siam has a small team, which raises the stakes of preventing an outbreak. “The difference between getting all staff out and getting one staff out is early detection, says Healy. “We spent thousands of dollars on testing. Did we save thousands of dollars by not having to close? Absolutely.” According to Healy, being closed for a weekend could cost the restaurant up to $75,000.

A wave of such temporary closures hit restaurants when omicron devastated the district in December and January. The city responded to the outbreak by reinstating an indoor mask mandate and proof of vaccination requirement for indoor dining. But when places reopened, it was often with a new emphasis on testing given that even vaccinated and boosted people can contract and spread COVID-19. Employees say they took a quick test every day for certain periods, but, in reality, it’s hard to achieve.

Between the shortage of workers and the sometimes unpredictable supply of tests, restaurants in the district have found themselves in a difficult situation as they try to stay open. A few have responded by implementing routine testing, while others have adopted a hodgepodge of implementation strategies reflecting how they have tackled other pandemic issues such as staffing and the supply of ingredients.

The workers who spoke to city ​​paper for this story over the past week and a half have asked to be identified by first name because they wanted to protect future employment opportunities, were not authorized to speak on behalf of their employers, or feared being identified due to their immigration status.

“We are not testing as a group, but it is expected that if you are feeling ill, are testing regularly and your test results are not negative, you will alert a manager and not enter” , said Laura, courier at a restaurant in Silver Spring. According to internal restaurant memos, all unvaccinated staff are supposed to get tested every two weeks, but she’s not sure if that’s being tracked.

Laura tested positive a few weeks ago. She only missed a few shifts because she had already taken time off for family reasons, but she estimates she lost about $1,200 in income. “Working six days a week is not what I want to do with my life, but it is what I have to do. do to cover the rent and have enough left over for not even luxuries, but little luxuries like going to dinner and being able to have a drink,” she says.

A few restaurants have brought workers back into the hospitality industry by offering better benefits like free mental health counseling, but few offer paid sick leave beyond what is required by law. The Accumulated Sick and Safety Leave Act requires employers to offer a certain amount of paid time off depending on the size of the company. Employees who exhaust their ASSLA benefits may also be eligible for unemployment insurance, provided a termination, layoff, or reduction in hours has occurred.

That said, Laura feels safer working in the restaurant than her day job. She trusts her restaurant colleagues to get tested if they feel sick, but she’s not so sure about the people she shares an office with. “There are so many of us and we’re all in the office sharing these close quarters, that’s what scares me,” Laura says. She does not know if all staff are vaccinated. She also thinks that’s where she caught COVID.

Still, Laura wants her restaurant job to be able to test employees more regularly. “I don’t think it’s a thing that [the restaurant] can handle just because they passed the tests,” she says. “Even though it’s fast, it’s still very difficult to continuously find massive amounts of rapid tests. I don’t think it’s possible, which sucks, but it would make me feel safer.

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington recommends a few resources for finding tests. Some companies, such as Acme Paper and Supply Co. have tests available for wholesale purchase and some restaurants have ordered through them. The same goes for Reditus Laboratories. As a last resort, RAMW offers tests for those who have trouble finding them.

Will be, a bartender at a restaurant near Union Station, says there’s no real procedure to follow when someone tests positive beyond scrambling to find replacement workers. “There are only seven people we can count on now,” he says. A COVID-positive staff member can only try to give people on the schedule enough notice so they can scramble to find someone or prepare to work with a lighter crew.

“It’s just the restaurant industry standard right now,” Will says. “Before, there were at least a lot more part-time and full-time workers who could take a shift. Now, if one person can’t do it, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to be a little short-staffed tonight and go from there.’ Or, ‘Someone draws a double.’ When he started in the industry in 2015, Will could plan week-long vacations on short notice and easily find coverage. “There is no perfect solution. It’s as good as it gets right now.

Will thinks keeping rapid tests on-site at the restaurant could make a difference. He is a resident of the district and has relied on getting the free home kits to know he is ready to work. He thinks the city has done a decent job of making rapid tests available. Some of his colleagues from Virginia have had a harder time finding tests and therefore feel less confident to point.

carlossous chef at a Shaw restaurant, says city ​​paper that her employer keep rapid CVS tests on hand in case employees weren’t able to get tested in their spare time because they have other jobs or childcare responsibilities. If someone tests positive, there is an established procedure.

Whichever department the employee is in, they will self-isolate until they can all get tested. Anyone who was working on the last day the infected staff member was in the restaurant is also being tested. In the worst-case scenario, the restaurant may switch to takeout-only service with a small team of healthy employees to stay afloat. Still, Carlos worries about asymptomatic spread. “In a restaurant, if one person gets sick, everyone gets sick, whether they like it or not,” he says.

When omicron arrived at the end of December, that’s exactly what happened at The Commodore in the Dupont circle. It was one of many places that had to close between Christmas and New Years.”[COVID] tore us apart like it tore so many other places,” says the general manager. Rob Van de Graaff. “Physically, I didn’t have the staff to cook or do anything.”

Van de Graaff collects free tests from a nearby library to make available in case an employee couldn’t get tested on their own or learns at work that they have been exposed. After his own battle with COVID-19 nearly a year ago, he remains cautious about the spread. He spent a week in the hospital and it took almost two weeks to recover. Now he gets tested every week.

After a brutal winter where reservations plummeted across the city, Van de Graaff is cautiously optimistic that things will improve if restaurants can just hang on a little longer for the warmer weather to arrive. He expects his restaurant’s patio business to resume, though the pandemic could still derail operations.

“Let’s say it’s the 60s, the patio is going to be packed, and I don’t know if I’m going to get text messages from one or two of my staff saying, ‘Hey, I just got tested positive,” Van de Graaf said. “When you’re understaffed, there’s no room for error. …You have to thread that needle perfectly every time.

Securing testing and regularly testing employees is just one more step that service reception workers and managers have had to add to their routine over the past two years. “If we restaurants and bars hear, ‘Well, you have to figure out how to do this or that,’ once again I’m going to be tearing out my almost non-existent hair,” says Van de Graaff. .

Van de Graaff was right to expect a change. This morning, Mr. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a plan to lift the vaccine requirement for indoor dining from February 15 and will let the indoor mask mandate for bars and restaurants expire at the end of the month. Bowser says cases are down 90% and hospitalizations are down 95%.

But on Friday, the weekly case rate per 100,000 DC residents was still above 100. Anything above 100 is considered high transmission by the Centers for Disease Control. DC has also reported 16 known deaths from COVID-19 since Feb. 4. Baan Siam’s Healy says the DC government’s easing of restrictions won’t impact its testing strategy.

“DC’s policies regarding masks and vaccine mandates may have changed again, but that won’t affect our testing strategy,” he says. “We were testing before that, we will continue to test in the future. It’s just a matter of good business sense to find out as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

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