In the span of a few days, at least six Frederick restaurants have announced temporary closures due to positive COVID-19 cases among staff members, and the virus' fickle nature has veteran restaurateurs tackling questions they never foresaw just 10 months ago.
Among the closed restaurants is Born & Raised, which opened just a few weeks ago at the former Family Meal restaurant on North East Street. Owner Dennis Hoffman found out Thursday morning through gossip that an employee was exposed and had gone to get tested. Before getting the results, Hoffman decided to close the restaurant.
Later that day, the employee indeed received a positive test result.
"If we had known, we would have told him he had to stay home," Hoffman said. "And we have benefits from that, so people will get paid when they’re out. But he chose not to tell us.”
Hoffman temporarily closed the restaurant for the safety of the staff and community, although he thinks transmissions in the well-ventilated and masked restaurant are unlikely. He’s frustrated to close so soon after opening and after putting guidelines in place for employees who suspect they’ve been exposed.
While businesses can put guidelines in place for their employees, there aren’t any hard and fast rules for businesses themselves to follow once they have a positive COVID-19 case. They are not required to close at all, and they are only recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the Frederick County Health Department to notify all employees who might have been within six feet of the infected employee for 15 minutes.
Businesses do not have to close their doors after a known infection, but it is recommended they close off any contaminated areas and sanitize as thoroughly as possible, Frederick County Health Officer Dr. Barbara Brookmyer said in an email to the Frederick News-Post in October.
The decision, then, is largely a moral one — putting many restaurants into complicated situations.
For Jim Hickey, owner of The Orchard on North Market Street, making the decision to close wasn’t hard. After being closed for six weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, he implemented plans for what would happen if an employee tested positive for COVID.
“We knew it could happen any time,” he said. “It's a loss of income but there's been some grant money floating around and we're keeping our head above water."
An employee who worked at the restaurant last Saturday night believed they may have been exposed to COVID-19 at their other job. At that job — another restaurant — an employee who also had a second job had started developing symptoms, and they eventually tested positive.
"It seems like it's spreading among the restaurant crowd downtown," Hickey said.
Since posting about the closure online, some customers have reached out asking about possible exposure. Hickey understands their concern, since eating at restaurants is still considered a higher risk activity.
"You just don’t want to make a bad call,” Hickey said. “You want to err on the side of caution and make sure your clients know you’re going to do what you can to keep not only your staff, but your customers, safe.”
Still, he said, the lack of strict guidelines can be confusing.
"But we're trying to figure out what's our policy and stick with it," Hickey said. "Because we're all kind of flying by the seat of our pants here."
Another downtown restaurant that recently shut its doors temporarily was Brewer's Alley. According to a post on its website, management became aware of an employee who tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday, at which point they closed. Two more cases were reported among employees in the next two days.
Justin Gosnell, a bartender at Brewer’s Alley for the last eight years, said he was distraught to see many people commenting negatively about the closure on Reddit and Facebook, criticizing the establishment for not being more transparent.
"I think [restaurant leadership] followed to a T what they were told by the Health Department and the CDC,” Gosnell said. “And whether or not people agree with that or think that's the right thing, that’s a different story."
The Health Department did not find any violations at Brewer's Alley and had not written them any citations, Rissah Watkins, director of planning, assessment and communication for the health department, wrote in an email. She did confirm, however, that the restaurant had been in touch with the department for guidance.
Gosnell said he and several employees were told directly by management that they may have been exposed to the virus. Some employees, he said, asked questions to try to find out who the employees were. But businesses are not permitted to release the names of those infected due to HIPAA.
The bartender believes restaurants are held to a higher standard by the general public when it comes to closures and disclosing information. He thinks the law should require businesses to close if they have a case, citing that many businesses, including big-box stores, have not closed at all since the beginning of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have employees with positive cases.
"I applaud any restaurant right now that is even just closed ... anyone making that call right now in the community,” he said. "I'm very grateful they're doing that.”
Bushwaller's Pub on North Market is also temporarily closed. In a Facebook post, management stated a few employees had started showing symptoms of COVID-19 and they decided to close immediately instead of waiting for results.
Just down North Market, The Tasting Room also shut its doors for several days before reopening Thursday evening, only to close down again Friday night. A Facebook post after the first shutdown stated owner Jarrett Walsh's wife had received a positive COVID test, so Walsh decided to close the restaurant.
After Walsh and his two children received three consecutive negative tests — and no employees tested positive for COVID — the restaurant reopened Thursday.
But then came Friday.
"It is with a very heavy heart that I have to announce another Covid related closure at [Tasting Room]," a second social media post notes. "Completely unrelated to my wife Beth’s false positive from last Saturday, late last night we had a kitchen staff member test positive. The positive staff member, who hasn’t been at the restaurant since last Saturday, was in contact with her brother Wednesday night. Her brother received a negative test on Wednesday afternoon and was allowed to come back to work yesterday."
The post continued, "He wore a mask the entire time but it is still a connection to a positive and you all know how seriously I take any link to a positive test. As painful as this is, we’ll be closing the doors to have the entire staff retested, again."
Evidenced by The Tasting Room situation, when to reopen is tricky. Hickey said he didn't want his employees to get tested too soon, since a test would probably not register the virus right after the exposure. But now that test results are starting to come back in, he's trying to make a decision on when to open his doors again.
"We were prepared. We were kind of assuming this would happen sooner or later with the big spike going up," he said. "The problem is, do we reopen next week and then have again after we shut down? So it's a little bit disconcerting, to say the least."