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Restaurants deal with COVID-19 exposures, implement measures going forward

Posted at 11:45 PM, Jun 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-18 08:33:24-04

Restaurants in the Tampa Bay area are dealing with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. While some work to open back up, some are also planning more stringent measures going forward.

Park & Rec DTSP and The Avenue Eat + Drink in St. Petersburg both voluntarily closed after its owner said they learned one of the workers had tested positive for COVID-19.

"We now are moving forward with staff being tested in order to come back to work and reopen. We are hoping that we have negative tests across the board and that we can open our doors again here in the next few days,” said Stephen Schrutt, the owner of Hunger Thirst Group, which also owns No Vacancy and Park & Rec Tampa.

Schrutt said they were first informed a roommate of an employee tested positive. The employee got tested Friday and learned later that day of their positive result.

“It had been almost a whole week since the employee was on our property. But the issue we ran into is we had some employees that spent some time together on their day off,” he said.

Schrutt said an employee who spent time with them got tested and also was positive. They decided to close the establishments while they were professionally sanitized.

Schrutt said they already required staff to wear masks, have a temperature check before every shift and increased handwashing.

“I will tell you it’s very difficult to get the general public to do social distancing. We’ve got tables spread out for it but it’s definitely difficult. We’ve been doing 50 percent as our max occupancy. I’ve had people try saying, 'Oh, you’re slammed. Well, our occupancy’s high,'” he said. “You’ve got a 10,000 square-foot building, our occupancy is higher than a mom-and-pop restaurant that maybe only has 25 seats. So we’re looking at decreasing that.”

Schrutt said moving forward, he plans to require temperature checks and hand sanitizer upon entry for all guests at all establishments. Employees not wearing masks will be let go. They'll go under 50 percent capacity when they first reopen.

“We are seeing that what we can do makes a difference so I feel like going forward we really should demand whatever we can out of everyone,” he said.

Those restaurants aren’t alone.

Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill in Tarpon Spring posted on social media it would be closed until Tuesday due to a COVID19 exposure.

“We made an immediate and proactive choice to shut down and give all staff time to get tested and allow us ample time to professionally disinfect. We will ONLY reopen with staff who have a confirmed negative test and we will ramp up our even more stringent protocols.” the restaurant wrote in part on a Facebook post.

Meat Market Tampa also took to social media, sharing it was informed on June 8 that an employee wasn’t feeling well and that they were instructed to stay home and get tested. The restaurant wrote since reopening, it made hand sanitizer available throughout the restaurant, increased cleaning and implemented temperature checks and daily questionnaires of its staff.

The restaurant wrote on social media in part:

“Despite our best efforts to mitigate exposure by implementing temperature checks, daily questionnaires of our staff, and complying with all CDC, OSHA, local, state and federal guidelines, we have become aware of an exposure of COVID-19 at our Tampa restaurant early last week. As such, per CDC guidelines, we immediately implemented risk mitigation protocols, including contact tracing. Further, those who we know may have been exposed have been tested, and have been instructed to stay home for the CDC recommended 14-day quarantine period to care for themselves, and to protect the safety of our staff, and customers.”

The restaurant wrote it undertook an intensive deep cleaning and disinfecting.

“We continue to monitor the situation, require staff to stay home if they do not feel well, and to deploy sanitization and disinfection protocols daily. We also remind our staff on premises, that they are required to wear a mask and gloves at all times, without exception while working at the restaurant. We will also continue to take the temperature of all staff and customers, before entering the restaurant premises,” the restaurant stated online.

The social media posts were later deleted. ABC Action News has reached out to Meat Market Tampa for comment.

Rep. Jackie Toledo said it's important for Floridians to not let their guards down during the pandemic. Rep. Toledo released the following statement:

"As we reopen it is critical we do not let COVID fatigue cause us to lose focus on our priority of flattening the curve. There have been increases in cases across the state, and we must remain vigilant in adhering to CDC guidelines and recommendations from our health agencies and local jurisdictions. I have been to Meat Market and witnessed their sanitation protocols first hand, I believe this is an isolated incident and I have full confidence in their ability to keep patrons and staff safe. I have been in contact with management at the restaurant and will continue to follow up with them as we progress through Phase II."

It did not mention plans to close.

“When this news came out, it seemed like it confirmed a lot of our fears,” said Tom Pruim.

Pruim said he lives in the area and frequents restaurants in Hyde Park Village. He said he’s consistently seen large crowds sitting close, not wearing masks.

“In the last three to four weeks, everything going on, seeing people go away from these policies, it’s scary. It’s something we can definitely fix as a community,” he said.

Pruim said he and his wife are taking precautions seriously. He said they had to have their wedding over YouTube and a Facebook live stream and have been careful knowing they have family members in high-risk categories. He said he’d like to see restaurants implement more stringent policies. He said personally, he’d like to see masks mandated.

“Maybe if we have a mandatory mask policy we ticket those people and we use the funds from those tickets and then we fund free masks for people who can’t afford them and solutions for food banks,” he said.

Under Florida’s Phase 2 reopening, restaurants and bars can operate at 50 percent indoor seating capacity and full capacity outdoors with appropriate social distancing.

Under the state’s Phase 1 reopening for restaurants, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation published a list of mandatory measures and recommended best practices.

According to the list, mandatory measures included separating tables at least 6 feet, restricting parties at a table to 10 people or less and not allowing people to congregate in bar or waiting areas. Surfaces repeatedly touched were also to be frequently disinfected. It also states employees who have symptoms when arriving to work or who become sick during the day must immediately be separated from others and sent home.

According to the list, best practices recommended included providing hand sanitizer and disinfectant for customer use, removing unnecessary frequently touched items and providing physical distancing guides to promote social distancing.

The department said its Division of Hotels and Restaurant inspectors are “…incorporating informational comments on all on-site inspection reports issued to public food service license holders to promote situational awareness of the current public health emergency and is directing parties to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) COVID-19 webpage for guidance and resources.”

It recommends restaurants follow CDC guidelines.

“There’s a lot of inquiries from businesses about what types of practices they should follow in regard to an employee that has tested positive for COVID-19,” said attorney Robert Shimberg.

Shimberg is leading the COVID-19 response team for the firm Hill Ward and Henderson, and helps advise businesses on COVID-19 related issues that could impact them or their guests.

“As businesses are continuing to reopen, they do want to have plans in place not only that follow what the state directives are but anything that’s unique to their business,” he said.

Shimberg said there are best practices to follow. If a restaurant learns of exposure, he said they should notify their employees and if the employee has symptoms they shouldn’t report to work.

“If their employee notifies them they have tested positive for COVID-19 and they were at the workplace, then what the restaurant or business will want to do is thoroughly but quickly do an investigation. Kind of their own contact-tracing to determine who may have been in close proximity with that person whose tested positive for COVID-19 so the restaurant or business can take appropriate steps to provide notice to employees, guests or customers of the restaurant to let people know about the situation as appropriate,” he said.

Shimberg said it’s up to a business whether to close, but the more positive cases they have the more thought they need to give to closing. He said if a customer has been to a business, he recommends they call the business to get their questions answered and pay attention to reports on potential positive cases.

The Florida Department of Health Pinellas County (DOH Pinellas) explained that the department conducts and "extensive epidemiological investigation" and work with CDC whenever it is notified of a COVID-19 case.

DOH Pinellas explained how the investigation works in the following statement:

"When the Department of Health receives notification that a person has tested positive for COVID-19, the department conducts an extensive epidemiological investigation in conjunction with the CDC to identify individuals who may have had close contact with the virus. Those individuals are then notified by their county health department and instructed to self-isolate for 14 days after their exposure to the virus, and to contact their county health department and health care provider immediately if they develop symptoms. This process is followed for all individuals who test positive in Florida."