Before anyone in Portland had heard the term “COVID-19,” the conversation surrounding health and restaurants was often related to food safety: Did the restaurant have any health code violations? Was the food itself fresh?
Meanwhile, it had been long accepted in the food world that employees should push through illness to work, even though restaurant workers cooking and passing plates while sick with things like norovirus often spread that illness to customers. Many restaurant workers have often felt that they have to work while sick, fearful of the potential loss of a job or the drop in income. In Portland, restaurant owners with six or more employees must pay one hour of paid sick leave per 30 hours worked — often around a week’s worth of sick leave per year for full-time employees — but when those hours run out, taking time off to heal is a big ask.
Now, customers and employers seem far more worried about the health of the person serving the food. With a pandemic like COVID-19, the potential of passing the illness could be disastrous, not only in terms of public health but in terms of reputation. Ironically, food safety experts like North Carolina State University professor Ben Chapman have said there isn’t much data that shows a risk of food service workers contaminating food with COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say spread of the virus through contaminated food is not a huge concern, because of the low survivability on objects; that’s good news for food service workers. But that doesn’t account for what happens when diners begin eating within restaurants again, or when servers are taking orders inches away from diners. And, with some counties in Oregon opening up restaurants for dine-in service as soon as May 15, that could be an issue sooner rather than later.
When talking to restaurant owners and chefs, many are thinking about bolstering their health insurance plans, permanently instituting health safety precautions like masks, or requiring mandatory health checks — not because of their reputations, but because they want their employees to be safe. They’re thinking about raising menu prices so they know they can cover health insurance when restaurants reopen. They’re using their GoFundMe donations and loans to pay for their employees’ health care benefits, even while they’re furloughed. Eater Portland talked to 11 chefs and restaurant owners about how they want to factor health and safety into their business models, whether that means wearing face masks indefinitely, waiting on a vaccine before reopening, or changing their health insurance policies to better cover their employees. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
What would you want to hear from the government or any health care authority before you considered reopening?
“That there is better handle of the situation, that testing is now across the board, and that the system that is supposed to help and support everyone in time of need is in working order.” -Carlo Lamagna, Magna
“I think there could be some liability on a litigious level, as this pandemic is not going away. What are the protections if someone does get sick and points a finger as you as a restaurant owner? What does that do to me, my reputation? Even though it’s going to be impossible to prove, even the suggestion could put us out of business for life. These are the questions we need answered. It’s not about if, it’s about when. God forbid, we can always bring people back to work; we can never bring them back to life.” -Vitaly Paley, Paley Hospitality
“That there is testing available to all of our employees.” -Kurt Huffman, Chefstable
“Very clear regulations and guidelines on how to do this safely — we will not bring more people back or into our restaurant until it is 100 percent safe to do so. And it shouldn’t be our responsibility to declare when that happens or what that looks like. While we have kept our operation going with only seven people (managers) who are always separate and who know exactly what they need to be doing at all times, we still manage every piece of the day. If the state is telling us to open our doors, that is massive responsibility safety-wise to put on business owners so we want complete assurance that hiring people back, and welcoming people in, won’t put our staff at risk or cause this to spread even further.” -Jen Quist & Doug Adams, Holler Hospitality
“That there is a vaccine to cure it.” -Jaime Soltero Jr., Tamale Boy
“We’d want to hear that we’re safe. Whether that means a vaccine, easy affordable treatment, or eradication of the virus, we can’t say. We’re going to continue to feel this all out as we go, but we won’t be opening our dining room again until we know we aren’t putting our staff or guests at risk by having them here.” -Maya Lovelace, Yonder & Mae
“Statistics of cases being in a consistent decline and the timeline for a vaccine.” -Ricky Gomez, Palomar
“That the spread of COVID-19 has slowed enough for us to safely open. That we have found the treatment or a vaccine that works. And we would not put our trust in the federal government, rather we would listen to our health care professionals or our local leadership as long as they’ve worked within the parameters of our health care leaders.” -Eric Nelson, Eem
“It would take a vaccine and knowing everyone was vaccinated to swing our doors right open.” -Peter Cho, Han Oak
“A vaccine will be nice, but I understand that takes time.” -Fatou Ouattara, Akadi
“I am opening for contactless take-out this month and it will be done with the utmost respect in following the recommended guidelines provided by WHO, the CDC and local government and state. I would appreciate a safety protocol for all industries worldwide reopening, and protective gear for all provided by the government. I want the government to choose our health over the dollar and help our industry to provide a lifeline to the farmers, a lifeline to recognizing food as medicine, food as joy, food as history and culture. To make space in the system to protect our fragile infrastructure. We have an opportunity to seize through this heartbreak. We are responsible for restructuring what didn’t serve our community, what hurt us and to recognize this importance moving forward to revitalize and strengthen our food system. Period.” -Kristen D. Murray, Maurice
Will your servers or kitchen staff continue to wear face masks or gloves when restaurants reopen for dine-in service?
Note: The new phase-one reopening guidelines, released yesterday, require restaurant owners to wear masks or other face coverings when their counties allow them to reopen for dine-in service. Not all restaurant owners plan to open when their county reopens, however.
“Face masks yes, gloves I have issues with. It is better to continuously wash your hands. With gloves, you are essentially touching the same things, so I am not understanding why we are even forced to use them unless its literally for doing one chore at a time.” -Jaime Soltero Jr., Tamale Boy
“We will do whatever it takes to make our guests feel at ease. If we need to wear gloves or masks, that seems a small price to pay block the transmission of Covid-19, and if it only offers peace of mind, then that’s good enough for us.” -Eric Nelson, Eem
“Our front of house team will wear masks. We will adhere to any protocols put forth by the governor, but even the Oregon Health Department does not think it is smart for foodservice workers to wear gloves. It will be a tightrope balancing act between following the guidelines from Governor Brown but also realizing that the public perception often times dictates our actions in the restaurant industry.” -Garrett Benedict, G-Love
“We will abide by any and all rules public health officials ask us to.” -Ricky Gomez, Palomar
“Definitely — hosts will definitely wear gloves and face masks, we’ll have standing wipes for the POS system, and I want to encourage people to bring their own pens to sign stuff with. Food runners will wear gloves.” -Deepak Kaul, Bhuna
“Knowing that all our staff is vaccinated, I guess not. But knowing that might not be for another year... At some point, we’re going to say, ‘Hooray, we don’t have to wear masks and gloves anymore, everyone’s vaccinated!’ but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.” -Peter Cho, Han Oak
“Absolutely. We will continue to take every measure possible to ensure the safety of our staff and guests. For eight weeks we have worn gloves and masks all day, every day at work (along with a laundry list of other precautions) and if that is what’s needed to keep people safe, it will continue.” -Jen Quist & Doug Adams, Holler Hospitality
“Too soon to say. My staff and I will be wearing masks and gloves, hand washing, sanitizing until it’s safe. Thankfully, we already have a rigorous cleaning and sanitizing system in place.” -Kristen D. Murray, Maurice
“Absolutely.” -Andy Ricker, Pok Pok
“I’m really not sure. For me, food has always been something very personal, very intimate, and about processing sensory information — the idea of wearing a mask all day is difficult to imagine. It makes tasting your food and engaging with it difficult. It means cooks are less able to sense the nuance of what they’re cooking — through smell and taste, specifically. Nuance is what makes our food special. I don’t know if I can imagine us operating fully while masked and gloved. But, as I’ve mentioned, we’re rolling with the punches — we’ll do what it takes to stay safe.” -Maya Lovelace, Yonder & Mae
Do you plan on changing your health insurance coverage or sick leave policy for employees, or plan on requiring any mandatory health checks in the future?
“I still can’t afford to provide health insurance, so that is out unfortunately for us.” -Jaime Soltero Jr., Tamale Boy
“We already offered health insurance to our employees before the shut down, but in a cruel twist, at the time when we all need health insurance the most, we had to cancel our employees’ coverage because of the drastic drop in revenue. We are planning to reinstate that coverage as soon as possible. I think we all look at sick leave differently now. We will definitely look to change our policies to offer support and safety to our employees and guests.” -Garrett Benedict, G-Love
“Our policy was never rigid — if you’re sick, you go home, even if we have to close down. Hopefully we can all afford to take the test before resuming business.” -Fatou Ouattara, Akadi
“We will still offer the same insurance plan we’ve offered before. Eem has always taken care of not allowing people to work sick. In all honesty, working sick has always been something restaurants have accepted, part of the old trope. When we opened Eem, we called “bullshit” and made it a policy to not allow it. We offer up to 80 hrs of paid sick leave (or PTO if so desired) per year. We’ll keep that going.” -Eric Nelson, Eem
“We’ve always wanted to provide health insurance for our employees, but we haven’t been able to afford it in the past. I think that we’re going to see many restaurants raise prices when we come out on the other side of this — we’re all realizing that we have to provide healthcare and we have to find a way to increase our profit margins so that if calamity strikes again, we aren’t in this position — it’s become the norm for restaurants to barely break even. It wasn’t always like that. We’re accustomed to having panic attacks every single time payroll comes around — that’s insane. We’ve allowed ourselves to focus on keeping prices low to compete when we should’ve been focused on creating healthy businesses that can adequately care for employees in case of emergency. In terms of illness, we’ve always told our staff that they stay home if they’re sick — that someone else can always take on a little extra. We will keep doing that, and encouraging our crew to keep a close eye on their health and wellness and stay honest with us about how they’re feeling.” -Maya Lovelace, Yonder & Mae
“Providing the best benefits for Holler Hospitality employees has always been at the top of the list in our company, so we are still working through what this looks like for the future but will always make sure our people are taken care of. And as for health checks — this is something we are already doing and will continue to do so as long as it’s necessary.” -Jen Quist & Doug Adams, Holler Hospitality
“We offer health coverage for full time employees and have continued to pay 100 percent of those benefits during our closure. Temperature checks will become part of normal daily operations. We will continue to follow Oregon Labor Laws and provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours accrued.” -Ricky Gomez, Palomar
“As it was all going down, we had committed to our staff that we would pay for half of their health insurance, but now we’re paying for all of their health insurance through the end of May. We wanted to ensure that if anyone gets sick, they’re covered. But not everyone is insured by us. We’re trying to figure out how to spend the GoFundMe — are we going to pay for insurance through June? We don’t know how to use the funds quite yet, we’re checking in with them every week.” -Peter Cho, Han Oak
“We already have health insurance for all our full-time employees, and we didn’t just get what we needed to get — We didn’t need to get insurance for employees of Paley’s Place because of our size, but we did it anyway. It’s the right thing to do. Whatever the sick leave policy mandated by the local authorities is what we’re sticking to. That’s in place, that’s been in place, and it will continue to be in place.” -Vitaly Paley, Paley Hospitality
“It has always been in our future to provide healthcare for all the employees. We hope this can still be the case when we re-open. We already have a good program in place, so we shall see.” -Carlo Lamagna, Magna
• Portland Chefs and Restaurant Owners Share When They Hope to Reopen for Dine-In Service [EPDX]
• Oregon Restaurants Could Open in Select Counties As Soon As May 15 [EPDX]
• America’s Independent Restaurants Struggle to Provide Sick Leave. That’s Got to Change. [Eater]
• Food Safety and Coronavirus Disease [CDC]
• A food safety expert on why you’re unlikely to get the coronavirus from groceries or takeout [Vox]
• Half Of Food Workers Go To Work Sick Because They Have To [NPR]