Chicago restaurants see a void in COVID-19 safety guidelines

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As Chicago restaurants and bars reopen for restricted outdoor service and prepare to relaunch indoor dining — now slated for July 1 — owners are developing strategies to protect their staff and customers, both physically and legally. Some establishments use booking apps as an intermediary between employees and diners to ask questions about a customer’s health and travel. The city and state have issued safety guidelines, but they are being ignored in some areas.

Alinea Group co-owner Nick Kokonas is concerned and says there aren’t enough government guidelines on how to operate if an employee has COVID-19.

In a Twitter thread on Tuesday, Kokonas reveals that two employees of different Alinea restaurants reported positive tests in early June and explains how the company responded. Every worker who shared a shift with them was voluntarily tested and confirmed negative. That’s good news for everyone, but testing staff for those two incidents cost the group about $8,000, according to Kokonas. He anticipates more costs for contact tracing once catering service resumes.

Kokonas explains how current protocols for restaurants that have an employee who tests positive for the virus ultimately prompt them to ignore the issue or simply close. Kokonas believes that customers who run out of restaurants will sign anything that allows them to eat in the dining rooms. He says novel coronavirus testing is the only effective way to protect safety.

“It is unsustainable to shut down operations every time an employee is sick or suspected of having COVID,” he wrote on Twitter. “With limited capacity, the cost of testing employees outweighs the benefits of opening…the resulting quarantine/testing requirements make it impossible to run a business. So businesses will either ignore or shut down again .

Kelly Cheng of James Beard Award-winning family business Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown is also working to prepare her restaurant for potential health and legal issues. The property will require diners to provide contact information and sign a health declaration form affirming that they have not had symptoms of COVID-19 and have not had the virus in the past 14 days, according to WBEZ. She was inspired by the widely shared coronavirus handbook of Hong Kong restaurant group Black Sheep.

Cheng understands that some may be concerned about confidentiality and included a stipulation that signed forms will be destroyed within 60 days. Although she anticipates some discomfort with the procedure, at least initially, she hopes diners will see that it is designed to help them in the event of restaurant exposure.

Chicago restaurants could open July 1 for limited-capacity indoor dining. The city has yet to issue guidelines. The Illinois Restaurant Association recently released a safety pledge for restaurants to help ease the concerns of diners venturing out during the pandemic, but a common complaint from restaurant owners is that the government is letting them interpret themselves- even laws without advice.

Kokonas hopes her tweets reassure customers instead of scaring them off. At the same time, he writes that he sees “other restaurants in the city where outdoor space is too tight, employees don’t wear PPE, customers line up at the doors, etc.” After months of financial losses, he says some operators are willing to stay open at all costs, and current protocols encourage them to skip testing to continue generating revenue.

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