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New task for operators: Rigorous monitoring of employee health

Restaurants are conducting COVID tests, checking temperatures and much more as they try to prevent the pandemic from spreading inside their establishments.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Paula Haney, pastry chef and owner of Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company, said she never wanted to delve so deeply into the personal lives of her 50 employees.

But the pandemic has made some sleuthing necessary for the safety of her workers and customers at her two pie shops, Haney said.

“It’s tricky,” she said. “I’m not anybody’s doctor. It’s really none of my business what you do in your private life but now what you do in your private life could put everybody at risk.”

But a couple of weeks ago, Haney started bringing in someone to the pie shops to conduct COVID testing for all employees. The every-two-weeks nasal swab is covered by insurance, with results in two or three days.

“It’s just really given me a lot more peace of mind,” she said. “Hopefully, if anyone does catch it, we can keep from spreading it to the whole company.”

Haney has not made the testing mandatory but, so far, everyone has participated, and no positive tests have been detected.

All employees get their temperature checked before the start of each shift and they must answer five questions about their health and potential contact with infected people before signing in.

As the pandemic surges in almost all parts of the country, restaurant operators are putting in place systems to try to keep their employees and customers safe.

New York City-based Union Square Hospitality Group partnered with CLEAR, the identity firm known for its work in airport TSA lines.

USHG is using Health Pass by CLEAR for daily COVID screening, with employees taking health survey questions via an app before reporting to work each day. Employees then report to a CLEAR kiosk, where they receive a temperature check and scan their personal QR code to share health information.

Depending on the results, workers receive either a red or green Health Pass on their app.

The health monitoring program is voluntary, according to a USHG spokeswoman, and the employer only receives information about whether a worker passed the test—not health details.

“The introduction of indoor dining in New York City is a crucial step in our industry’s recovery and for it to succeed, nothing will matter more than creating a safe environment for our team members returning to work and for our guests coming back to dine with us,” USHG CEO and founder Danny Meyer said in a statement.

Chicago-based multi-concept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises began creating a comprehensive health-and-safety protocol early in the pandemic.

Carrol Symank, LEYE’s vice president of risk operations, worked with a group of operators from many of the restaurants to develop best practices for employees and customers.

Each of the company’s 7,000 employees signed a “health agreement” that outlines COVID symptoms, defines close contact, and says they will report immediately to their supervisor if they’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms or have come in close contact with someone who tested positive or has symptoms.

Managers take employee temperatures before each shift and workers must declare verbally that they’ve not had any COVID symptoms in 10 days.

“Our restaurant employees do understand there are risks involved in doing their jobs during this time of COVID-19 and they want to do everything they can do to keep everyone safe,” Symank said. “Nobody wants to either come down with COVID-19 or be a spreader.”

If LEYE receives information of a positive test, risk management employees do contact tracing to determine when the person may have become infectious and who had contact with them. Symank declined to say whether or how often that has happened at the company’s restaurants.

“We put out a notice to all staff at that restaurant to let them know there was a positive person, in order to be transparent with everybody,” he said.

Symank, who has worked for LEYE for 32 years, said operating under this new reality has been stressful, but not impossible.

“It seems that we have sort of eased into it,” he said. “As with everybody on earth, not just the restaurant industry, not just the U.S., we’ve had to learn as we go. And we have to get out there and collect as much information as we can from as many sources and experts that we have to guide us … But there’s a commitment to doing business safetly and there’s buy-in across the board to that commitment.”

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