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‘It feels like we’re being led to slaughter’
Service industry employees weigh in amidst COVID-19 shutdowns

GEORGIA restaurants were allowed to reopen at full dine-in capacity on June 16 per an executive order by Governor Brian Kemp.

Days later, a spate of restaurants announced they were closing due to staff who tested positive for COVID-19.

Molly McGuire’s, who never reopened for full dine-in service, was first with a Facebook post on June 18. The 5 Spot in Habersham Village and Spanky’s on Southside rapidly followed, along with The Rail Pub.

The list grew to include both Collins Quarter locations, Bull Street Taco, Treylor Park and Hitch, Pacci, The Olde Pink House, Leopold’s, and many more.

As restaurants close on a near-daily basis, it’s clear that we have a problem here.

Some called on social media for the health department to intervene. During a press conference on June 22, Dr. Lawton Davis, Health Director of the Coastal Health District, shut that down, saying, “We have not asked anybody to close, those that have closed have done so voluntarily.”

I confirmed later in the week with a Coastal Health District spokesperson that “there is no guidance directing our Environmental Health staff to close a restaurant because of COVID-19.”

(That’s typical even in normal circumstances: for an establishment to be shut down by the health department, they must fail three consecutive inspections.)

The Georgia Department of Public Health does advise, “If a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is highly recommended that the Person-In-Charge notify the health department as soon as possible.” The key word there is recommend; it is not required. Plus, the onus falls on management, not on the employee itself.

So, with no real threat on the line of being shut down, there will undoubtedly be establishments in town that have an employee test positive for COVID-19, but don’t close.

I say undoubtedly because it’s already happening. In an anonymous email I received June 24, an employee of a restaurant on River Street reported this exact situation.

The restaurant’s management is following all the protocol laid out in the reopening guidelines—mask-wearing, temperature checks, and frequent cleaning—yet failed to notify its staff of a positive COVID-19 case.

“Close contacts of the infected employee were not removed from the schedule, were not asked to self-isolate, and were not required to be tested,” reads the email.

“Business went on as usual. We served a high volume of customers during this time and continue to do so.”

I received another email on June 26 with a similar complaint at a downtown restaurant. After an employee tested positive for COVID-19, the restaurant closed briefly to sanitize and told other employees to be tested before returning to work.

However, management didn’t follow through, and the email alleges that employees have been working without receiving their COVID-19 test results.

This is the position in which the Savannah service industry finds itself. Because Georgia is now open, restaurants and bars can open, which means that work is available for its employees, which means that unemployment benefits are no longer available to them.

Restaurants have been hemorrhaging money since this pandemic began. Rent isn’t cheap; we’ve already seen several establishments in town close because they couldn’t make ends meet. Not every establishment has the financial leeway to close a second time.

So, in desperate situations, employees who test positive will withhold that information from their manager to remain on the schedule, or management will receive word of a positive case and stay open and operating as usual.

That, of course, puts employees and customers in danger—but the owners continue to turn a profit and keep the restaurant in business.

The desperation of this moment is perhaps best encapsulated by an email forwarded to me by a restaurant employee. The management team reminds employees of their standard sick policy and tells them that they must come to work even if they feel uncomfortable.

Management also reminds employees of the “precarious financial situation” restaurants now find themselves in, and that they cannot afford to lose customers.

As I reported a few weeks ago, many employees don’t feel safe in their jobs due to a widespread lack of care by guests. Now, employees may also feel unsafe because of actions taken by their management.

“It feels like we’re being led to slaughter,” says one employee of a River Street restaurant where, they allege, management covered up a positive COVID-19 case from its staff. (It’s unclear if this is the same restaurant described in the email from June 24.)

“It definitely seems more about optics than safety,” says an employee of a midtown restaurant, whose management is scaling back safety protocol and allowing gradually more guests. “I am fearful of going to work every single day.”

One employee at a local bakery requested to be taken off the schedule while awaiting test results after being exposed to a COVID-positive person, but management required them to come to work anyway. That employee was later fired.

Stories like this almost certainly abound locally due to the close nature of the service industry here. Many service industry folks live together and interact with each other, and it’s very difficult to stay six feet apart while in the middle of service.

Combine that with the customers (read: tourists) who are barhopping without masks in the middle of a global pandemic, in a city where cases are spiking.

Add in the fact that restaurants and bars are still reeling from the financial loss of St. Patrick’s Day and now of the prime tourist season, and it’s clear that the service industry in Savannah is in a precarious position.

So, what to do? Clearly, not every establishment is on bad behavior. As you’ll see on social media, a growing number of restaurants and bars are closing voluntarily to keep its staff and customers safe.

But it’s important to understand the position that many establishments are in. Remember that just because you see staff in masks and sanitizing point-of-sale systems between guests doesn’t mean it’s inherently safe. Remember that COVID-19 can often be spread by asymptomatic carriers, so a temperature check at the start of a shift doesn’t mean the virus isn’t in the restaurant already.

“No matter how hard you try to wear gloves, masks and wash your hands, there is no way to completely stay clean,” says one employee. “The only way is to stay home.”