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Coronavirus In Ohio: Restaurant And Bar Workers Say Economy Prioritized Over Health

Laurie Granger is a manager and bartender at a cocktail bar in the Short North.
Ash Gerlach
Courtesy of Two Truths
Laurie Granger is a manager and bartender at a cocktail bar in the Short North.

Columbus was logging about 80 new cases of COVID-19 per day when bars and restaurants were ordered to close across the state. Lately, the numbers have been more than double that.

“It feels like a scale where you’ve got an economy on one side and lives on another,” says Laurie Granger, manager of Two Truths, a small cocktail bar in the Short North. “And it’s a lose-lose situation because you’re going to have folks that will die as a result of this and you’re going to have businesses that will go under as a result of this.”

Granger feels the state’s guidelines for reopening restaurants and bars are vague, so she is trying to go above and beyond to keep her staff and customers safe. So far, she says no coronavirus cases have been traced to her bar.

“The optimist in me wants to believe that if we do everything to the letter of the law, nobody will get sick and everybody will be fine,” Granger says. “But I don’t think we have enough scientific evidence to prove that these regulations in place will keep that from happening.”

Restaurant giant Cameron Mitchell says his businesses have been following state and CDC guidelines. His group organized Zoom calls with restaurants to answer questions, and required masks for patrons before it was mandated.

“We believe we’re the most responsible restaurant company that’s out there currently that we’re aware of,” Mitchell says.

Despite following those guidelines, though, several employees from Cameron Mitchell restaurants have already tested positive for COVID-19. Cases have been reported at Cap City Dublin, The Pearl in the Short North and Dublin, and Lincoln Social in the Short North.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lincoln Social Rooftop Bar (@lincolnsocial) on Jul 5, 2020 at 12:29pm PDT

Restaurants are not required to close if an employee has COVID-19, but Mitchell says they did so voluntarily at multiple locations for cleaning and testing. Some restaurants closed for just a day or two if they had enough unexposed staff to open up, while others shuttered for several weeks.

Mitchell says that some cases are inevitable.

“The guidelines are in place to help protect everybody as much as possible against the virus,” Mitchell says. “The only way to ensure one does not get the coronavirus is to never have any human contact.”

Some Cameron Mitchell employees, who spoke to WOSU anonymously out of fear of losing their jobs, say if restaurants and bars cannot be operated without staff getting sick, they shouldn’t be open at all.

“We’re trying to make up what we lost for being shut down for these months and months,” one employee says. “Callous would be the right word. Waiting for everybody to get sick is a sick way to think about operating the business. Just waiting until you no longer can staff or you’re just going to continue to hire to have bodies on the floor… it’s just very backwards.”

Another employee says the restaurant he works at is being extremely cautious, but customers are not. 

"I don’t feel like we’re not acting safe," he says. "It’s our guests that come in that aren’t necessarily taking these precautions making it safe for us."

View this post on Instagram We will continue to be closed until further notice to protect the health and safety of our associates and our guests. We apologize for the inconvenience and are looking forward to seeing you all again soon! ♥️ Stay healthy! A post shared by The Pearl Columbus (@pearlcolumbus) on Jul 7, 2020 at 10:54am PDT

Public health guidelines say when a person tests positive for the coronavirus, anyone who was within six feet of that person for more than 15 minutes is supposed to quarantine for 14 days. Employers cannot release the name of the infected worker because it is a violation of health privacy.

One employee at The Pearl says he was exposed to a COVID-positive coworker, but management never told him that. Instead, he says found out who the person was from coworkers.

“It was like, I know who this associate was, I worked Wednesday, I guess I’m going to go get tested on my own volition,” he says. “Because upper management for the bigger Cameron Mitchell conglomeration sort of bank on the ignorance of your status because they want to run the restaurant and make money.”

Mitchell disagrees with that assessment.

“We’re not open to make money right now,” he says. “Profit is illusive right now. We’re open to stay alive, to survive, and get through to the other side of the pandemic.”

If his businesses shut down again, Mitchell says, they will go bankrupt, putting thousands of people out of work. 

Credit Ash Gerlach / Courtesy of Two Truths
Courtesy of Two Truths
Guidance for customers at Two Truths cocktail bar in the Short North.

A Standard Hall employee, who spoke to WOSU anonymously, says she feels the business is forcing employees to choose between their money and their health. She and other employees are waiting on their test results after a coworker tested positive.

An email sent to staff reads, “If you do not feel comfortable working, that’s fine too. As for unemployment, you won’t be able to file.”

Owner Chris Corso says the unemployment question is out of his hands. 

“That’s not up to me, that’s up to the government,” Corso says. 

Dr. Mysheika Roberts of Columbus Public Health says it is the business owner’s responsibility to ensure that employees waiting for their test results don’t come into work.

“They should know who in their establishment was exposed to the positive case, and who is able to come to work and who is quarantined,” Roberts says. “It’s also the responsibility of the individual who was exposed: ‘I was exposed, I shouldn’t be at work, I should be at home.’ In terms of enforcement, the enforcement falls in the responsibility of the local health department, but that’s only what we know.”

Roberts says it is also the responsibility of patrons to wear a mask and abide by the rules if they choose to go to restaurants and bars.

If this spike in cases leads to an increased demand in local hospitals, Roberts says the government will have no choice but to take action. And that may require closing down businesses again.