An Employee Tests Positive for COVID-19, Now What?

Whether you’re operating takeout and delivery services only or you live in one of the states reopening this month, restaurant owners all over worry what to do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. With a dearth of official advice and more confirmed cases every day, small businesses have to rely on their own instincts along with a compilation of various resources they find on the internet.

What should restaurants, and all small businesses, do when one of their employees tests positive for COVID-19? Unfortunately, there’s no official guideline or federal precedent. Individual state and local authorities dictate the rules for their jurisdictions but many don’t have any in place. The CDC and local health departments also offer advice, but by and large businesses choose for themselves how to handle an outbreak.

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What Some Restaurants Are Doing

Despite insufficient protocols, there are common steps that restaurants take when faced with this issue:

  • Inform all other employees that their coworker tested positive for the virus and that they’ve been exposed. This will allow everyone to get tested themselves and take additional safety precautions as they see fit.
  • Remember HIPAA. Don’t disclose any personal or medical information about the sick employee. Maintain their privacy and security while still keeping the rest of your staff aware of the potential risk to their own health.
  • If workers get exposed, follow CDC and FDA advice on screening and handling infected employees. Information on these websites will teach you how to check for symptoms and respond accordingly.
  • Close takeout and delivery services for at least two weeks and quarantine both the restaurant and your staff for that entire time. You can donate your extra food or send it home with your employees; though there’s no evidence that COVID-19 can remain on containers and surfaces for any significant period of time, some people might worry about donating food that was exposed to COVID-19. Thus you can give it to your employees to help get them through temporary furlough rather than letting it all go bad.
  • Sanitize everywhere. Clean thoroughly before closing for those two weeks and then again right before reopening to the public.

Businesses, even in food service, aren’t required to close for any length of time when an employee tests positive. Many people are also scared to put funds and time into closing and then reopening, only to have to immediately close again if another employee or customer gets sick. To avoid some of this financial burden while still quarantining as suggested, increase your preventative measures and cleaning regimen.

Start or continue screening employees before and during their shifts. Watch for fevers and other COVID-19 related symptoms. You can use devices like contactless thermometers to accurately detect abnormal temperatures and refer to approved checklists to find out what symptoms to watch for. Apple, for example, recently released an app with up-to-date COVID-19 related information and prescreening questions you can ask your staff.

If any of your employees come in sick, direct them immediately to a doctor or the nearest medical facility so that they can get tested. Although everyone in the workplace should get screened just in case, instruct your staff to isolate for the recommended two weeks regardless of the results. Let everyone know when, if and how you plan to reopen. Don’t be afraid to also consult with your HR department about how to handle your employees and this virus moving forward.

Transparency is key, especially when the public is so worried and has very little information about affected areas in their communities. Once you inform your staff, tell other businesses nearby about your outbreak and notify the city department of health. Some local governments will assist with next steps; others, like L.A. county, are compiling a list of affected businesses to better keep the general public safe.

Keep everyone up to date about how you’re handling the outbreak. Make a public announcement via social media as well as an email blast about customers’ potential exposure and what measures you’re taking in response. People need reassurance right now and uncertainty will only cause panic, and could even reflect unfavorably on your reputation. Be open and honest about everything that you’re doing to combat the spread of the virus; this lets your staff and customers know you care about their wellbeing.

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What Else Can You Do?

Aside from informing the public, employers also have the option to file a worker’s compensation claim if a staff member catches COVID-19 or spreads it to their coworkers on the job. However it’s difficult to determine where or how someone caught the virus, and employers need to validate this claim by proving the worker could only have contracted it on the job. Additionally, insurance companies aren’t eager to pay out benefits when the virus is so prevalent and the incubation period makes it very difficult to prove an origin point. If you plan to file a claim, do so immediately. The policy covers time off work, any permanent disabilities that result from it, medical expenses and even death benefits.

Rather than hoping to rely for worker’s compensation, though, business owners should make a plan in advance for what to do when an employee tests positive. The faster you can react to an outbreak, the more effectively you can contain it and quarantine exposed individuals.

Some health departments, like the one in D.C., are actively working on establishing an official guideline, but there’s very little oversight and no federal regulations. Though some may choose to do so, health departments aren’t required by law to close down or even inspect restaurants with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Except for healthcare clinics, most businesses don’t need to report an outbreak at all. As a result, restaurant owners turn to websites and guides published by the National Restaurant Association, the FDA and other official sources to figure out how to proceed. Businesses are also consulting with doctors and healthcare workers for personal advice. Clearly we need federal regulations.

Until we have clear instructions for handling COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace, sanitize frequently, monitor your employees for symptoms, and be honest when you have to shut down due to potential exposure. Communicate openly with staff and the public so that they can take their own safety measures or get tested as well. When an employee tests positive, being overly-cautious and extremely transparent will help protect the most people and do the greatest public good.

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