Residents line up for COVID-19 tests
A COVID-19 testing center in D.C. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Ten Farmers Restaurant Group employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the restaurant group behind Founding Farmers, Farmers Fishers Bakers, and Farmers & Distillers reopened its seven eateries to the public on May 29. City Paper doesn’t know this through investigative reporting. The restaurant publicly announced it to anyone else with access to the internet.

In July, Founding Farmers made its “COVID-19 Health & Safety Dashboard” available to the public. They began tracking data for internal purposes back in March. It looks like a Bingo board, but displays everything from the number of face masks the restaurant group has in stock to how frequently they clean and sanitize surfaces. The transparency stands out: Farmers Restaurant Group shares how many employees have been tested for COVID-19 and the results of those tests on the dashboard as well.

This is not the norm. The city doesn’t have mandated procedures for restaurants to follow when an employee tests positive for the virus. Restaurants are left to their own devices to determine what steps to take, what information to disclose, and to whom. D.C.’s COVID-19 website only offers vague guidance. 

City Paper asked Farmers Restaurant Group co-owner Dan Simons about the strategy behind the dashboard. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Farmers Restaurant Group’s Health & Safety Dashboard

CP: Many restaurants aren’t anywhere near this forthcoming with the public. Why did you take this approach? Did you fear it would hurt business if diners knew that some employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic? 

DS: Trust has always been one of the key ingredients in hospitality. Our guests are always trusting that we’re doing things safely for them. I like public health inspection scores—anything that gives the public a view into how a restaurant really operates. I took that same approach here. The stigma of positive COVID tests, that stigma is stupid. The best stuff is always when you shine a light on something, even when there’s a problem. Some of my team was worried. I said, ‘Listen if we’re scared of the truth, we have a bigger problem.’ Yeah, it crossed our minds. Might this hurt us? I decided if it does, well then we deserve to be hurt and so does everybody because it’s true. 

CP: Are employees encouraged to get tested on their own if they feel sick? Or do you mandate regular testing? 

DS: We maintain a list of all of the testing facilities so that we can provide info to our people of where they can go. If they don’t have insurance, we cover the cost of the test. They’re going as individuals. If someone doesn’t pass the health screening, we say you have to go get a test. They can’t come back to work until they’ve gotten test results or followed our quarantine protocol. 

CP: What does your health screening entail?

DS: It’s a 10-question survey that starts with a temperature check. We have a health manager assigned each shift. They have to check in all the employees. We take your temperature and ask about cough, diarrhea, all the fun questions. They go through it. We use an app that helps us track the test results. It tells you at the end if they pass or fail. If they don’t pass, they’re sent home, paid, and have to call Jillian [Heltzel] in HR. We stay in touch with that employee through that process. 

CP: What happens if someone tests positive?

DS: We use the [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines—the 14-day quarantine window. If you have symptoms and you get a negative test, regardless of negative test, you need to be symptom-free for three days before returning to work. 

CP: What did it take to create a culture where employees felt comfortable reporting positive test results? 

DS: It started a decade ago. Work culture is a plant. You have a seed and then you nurture it over the long term. We have the type of culture where it is safe to tell us how you feel. If you’re not feeling well, physically or mentally, it’s all health. COVID fits into our culture of how are you, are you OK, tell us what’s going on with you and we’ll help. What we really over-emphasize is paid time off. We’ve always had some form of paid vacation time. There’s paid sick leave, which is now required by law in D.C. We do it in all locations, even in Maryland and Virginia. If you don’t feel well, we’ll pay you to stay at home. Don’t put an employee in the position where they have to trade truth for a paycheck. We need to reinforce that in English and Spanish every day: If you’re sick, you’ll be paid to stay home. 

(Editor’s note: Farmers Restaurant Group doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to employee culture. They paid $1.49 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by employees alleging wage theft in 2018.) 

CP: Who is your “in-house certified health inspector” and how did you come to hire someone like this?

DS: Keysi Torres. We’ve always had a full-time health and safety person. The focus pre-COVID was food safety and physical safety. She does unscheduled inspections. Management teams don’t know when she’s coming in. She shows up in a lab coat. When COVID hit, we added all of our COVID safety protocols. Mask inventory, mask compliance, health checks, and people working as spread apart as possible. 

CP: Some of these strategies, like hiring an in-house health and safety inspector, aren’t affordable or realistic for small, standalone restaurants. What do you recommend they try?  

DS: Track information. If you can’t figure out how to pay people when they’re home sick, I don’t think you can stay open for business. That’s a must-do. Build written protocols and written checklists. Write down whatever you’re committing to. 

CP: Is any of this about protecting Farmers Restaurant Group from any potential legal action should someone get sick at the restaurant?

DS: People ask me about liability. Am I worried about it? In this case, I think if you’re trying to do the right thing and you’re telling the truth about it, those are the ways to limit your liability. The truth always comes out. Do you want to get caught telling the truth or caught hiding the truth? I think transparency limits liability. I understand the cynical view that transparency can invite liability, but that’s not how I see the world. 

CP: Is there anything else you want diners and readers to know? 

DS: [The Dashboard] has given us a performance metric. From a morale and motivation standpoint, it’s really helpful. The success of it breeds more success. My team is competitive. It’s a way we’re keeping score. If you’re struggling in an area, when you’re measuring it, you’ll notice it first … If I want to push the government to let us go to 75 percent capacity, we need to show them and get them to trust us. If you want to ask for something, you should build trust first. Then earn and discern.