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It’s a tough tweet to send. “Unfortunately one of our team members in Shaw has tested positive for COVID-19,” All-Purpose Pizzeria announced Nov. 30 on its social media accounts. “This person is currently doing fine but we will be closed tonight while we await test results for the rest of our employees.”
Ultimately, the restaurant closed for a week. All of the tests came back negative, which ownership attributes to strict safety protocols. The Shaw location has not allowed indoor dining since the public health emergency was declared in March. Not even delivery drivers can cross the threshold.
Desperate to make sales, small business owners may feel tempted to stay quiet upon finding out an employee or customer has tested positive for COVID-19 so as to not scare off skittish customers. But Chef Mike Friedman, who employs about 100 people at two locations of All-Purpose and The Red Hen, believes transparency is essential.
“We’ve always had a mission statement of being honest with everyone,” he says. “If you’re in the hospitality industry and you see a post from a restaurant that says they’re taking the next couple of days off, you know. It’s like, ‘I wonder who got it?’ Why dance around the elephant in the room? Let’s talk about it because it’s going to happen. It happened to us in April, June, September, and December.”
While Friedman hedges that the approach may not work for everyone, he says there’s a certain “honor code” that comes with running a business during a deadly pandemic. “There’s a larger-than-self feeling that everybody should have, a moral obligation to make sure we can all get through this.”
Small businesses like restaurants, retailers, salons, and gyms must follow numerous rules to operate safety right now. Some are mandated by the D.C. government, and others are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while there are rules on wearing masks, reducing indoor capacity, and collecting information for contact tracing, businesses are not required to publicly disclose what happens behind the scenes. At the end of the day, it’s up to individual owners to decide how to proceed.
Health and business experts have their own opinions about how businesses respond. Communication is fundamental to managing any public health crisis, and businesses have a role to play in blunting the pandemic. “Transparency about health information is essential for being able to manage and ultimately mitigate the outbreak or the crisis,” says Dr. Melissa Perry, an epidemiologist who chairs the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Transparency is going to keep people empowered.”
She supports businesses who are sharing that an employee tested positive without revealing any personal information. “It is actually demonstrating a level of responsibility and consciousness,” Perry continues. “It is communicating that business owners are in it with the public … It normalizes it as well. It better communicates how frequent these cases are and reduces stigma.”
Steven D. Cohen, an associate professor of business communications at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, also thinks sharing information like this is prudent. “It gives businesses owners the opportunity to frame the message in an empathetic and compassionate way,” Cohen says. “And if there is anything we need now more than ever, it is empathy.”
A Rooster & Owl employee received an alert through the city’s contract tracing system in November informing them they’d been exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.
The leaders of the 14th Street NW restaurant went above and beyond to get their team tested. A sous chef drove employees who don’t speak English to a free testing site and translated for them. Rooster & Owl paid staff for the time they spent getting tested. It was already weighing heavily on the owners that their hourly workers would lose income during the two days the restaurant closed for a deep clean.
Owners Carey and Yuan Tang say they learned from a conversation with the D.C. Department of Health that they “technically didn’t have to close or tell anyone” due to the nature of the exposure. They decided to share the information on social media anyway. “This person is asymptomatic, practiced social distancing, wore a mask and gloves, and was never in contact with diners,” a Nov. 10 Instagram post reads. “Anyone exposed is self-quarantining and will not return to work until they test negative.”
“It’s important for us as owners and as people who dine out ourselves,” Carey says, explaining why they decided to tell potential diners what was going on. “We’d want to know what they’re doing to correct it. It’s no one’s fault if they test positive. It happens to those who are exceptionally safe … I do wish people were more honest about who tested positive and when.”
The move didn’t seem to impact business, especially because Carey doesn’t think many people saw the posts. They did reschedule reservations, and most patrons were understanding, except for one woman who planned to celebrate a special occasion with a Rooster & Owl feast. Carey says the customer eventually came around and even apologized to the staff for being cranky.
Craft Beer Cellar DC received similar support after tweeting on Dec. 5 that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. “All other employees are getting tested and we’ll be working with DOH on all the proper steps,” owner Erika Goedrich wrote. “We will be back as soon as it’s safe to do so. We apologize for the inconvenience! Thank you for your continued support and understanding. Stay safe!”
The retail shop on H Street NE closed for four days and reopened once all employees received negative test results. “The response we’ve gotten on social media has been positive,” Goedrich says. “They were like, ‘I hope you’re well.’ Or, ‘Take care of yourselves.’ I’m hoping that translates to people still coming through for us, shopping in store and placing orders online.”
Centrolina’s chef, Amy Brandwein, was one of the first local business owners to share information about a staff COVID-19 diagnosis on April 24. “We take the current situation very seriously and have taken every precaution recommended by the CDC to keep our incredible staff and beloved guests safe,” she wrote. Diners responded with kind comments.
Brandwein’s attitude about transparency being a good policy hasn’t changed.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, we as restaurants have found ourselves in an interesting relationship with diners where we are so greatly relying on them to keep our businesses afloat,” she tells City Paper. “But diners are looking at us to serve comforting food within an incredibly safe environment. As we continue to navigate the pandemic, my team and I try to operate my restaurants in the most responsible manner.”
This sentiment is shared among some of the city’s other small businesses, be it salons or retail shops. Even though they are struggling to stay viable, their focus is on civic responsibility. “What’s going to give us longevity is staying in good standing in our community,” says Mercedes Ortiz-Olivieri, owner of Trim Hair Salon in Adams Morgan.
The same day she learned that one of her stylists tested positive, Ortiz-Olivieri shared the news on the company’s Instagram account. “She has not worked in the salon since 11/16 and we’ve contacted all clients they’d been in contact with. Out of an abundance of caution all staff members are being tested and awaiting the all-clear before returning to work,” reads a post shared on Thanksgiving. Ortiz-Olivieri says the employee is OK, and the rest of the staff tested negative.
She’s been taking coronavirus very seriously, implementing strict safety measures and requiring customers to sign a waiver before they come in. Trim did not reopen until July 6, more than a month after the city gave salons the green light.
“I very much feel that a lot of people who come to us are very grateful for our safety measures and our transparency so far,” Ortiz-Olivieri says. “If it’s going to be off-putting to somebody, it’s just somebody who wants to stick their head in the sand because it’s happening everywhere. Wouldn’t you want to know where it’s happening and when it happened and that people are being forthcoming about that sort of information?” she asks. “I’ve heard of salons where people aren’t doing anything.”
It is a hard business decision. On Dec. 7, East City Bookshop publicly disclosed that a back-office employee tested positive and that they were temporarily closing during the holiday shopping season. (The bookstore reopened for pickup on Dec. 11.) “We were kind of amazed at how well things were going, given all the limitations that we have,” says co-owner Laurie Gillman. “So, honestly, it really was a little painful.”
Gillman considers her enterprise to be part of the community. She says the thought of hiding the information did not occur to her. East City Bookshop has been around for five years and many of its employees have lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for even longer.
Once the staff member who oversees online sales tested positive and told the store’s leadership, Gillman shared the news on Twitter and emailed subscribers a lengthy explanation. “You’ve been incredibly supportive of East City Bookshop since we opened, and we want to give you honesty and transparency,” reads the newsletter dated Dec. 7. They continued to update the public, sharing on Twitter that the rest of staff tested negative. The responses were so supportive that Gillman says she teared up. “That goes a long way when people are under a lot of stress, just being kind,” she says.
Libby Diament took a similar approach at Diament Jewelry at the Wharf. The store owner got one puzzled response from a fellow business owner. “‘Are you sure you want to post that on your social media?’ Diament says, recalling the conversation. “‘Like you’re going to scare people and turn them off coming into the store?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I think it’s actually a good thing to be transparent, so people can see that we’re being really, really careful.’”
After an employee shared that they thought they had contracted COVID-19, Diament told Instagram followers the store would temporarily close due to a coronavirus scare. When the test came back negative, the jewelry store deleted the post so as not to confuse anyone. Diament believes transparency enables everyone to make better choices. This is the second scare the business has had during the pandemic.
“We decided that no matter what happens this year, health is more important than any money,” Diament says. “And every time we shut down, we lose thousands of dollars. I would love to be closed, but the bottom line is we think our small business is important to the community. I absolutely love what I do. I don’t want to lose my business. So we’re trying to kind of find that common ground where we can survive this.”
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen has noticed businesses being forthcoming about COVID-19 diagnoses on social media and has been encouraging his Twitter followers to acknowledge their candor.
“They are barely hanging on and when they take the right step—when they put their customers and staff first, above the bottom line—I think that takes courage,” he tells City Paper. “We need to make sure that we recognize that they took a tough step, they made a tough decision for all of us, so let’s pay it back and make sure that we support those local businesses for doing the right thing.”
While these restaurants and retailers took extra precautions, not all businesses know what DC Health expects of them when an employee, owner, or customer tests positive for COVID-19. They consult guidance from the CDC, but the information they find does not always get into the minutia of their respective business sectors.
Diament turns to a social media group of women in retail when she has questions, while Ortiz-Olivieri has relied on the advice of a customer who is an infectious disease doctor. Notably, only the hospitality industry businesses interviewed knew to report cases directly to DC Health. They have a track record of working closely with the agency, and restaurants and bars have, broadly speaking, received more attention and resources throughout the pandemic compared to other retail sectors.
According to the Phase 2 reopening guidance, restaurants, personal services, and retail stores must notify DC Health when they become aware of an employee or patron testing positive for COVID-19. Businesses notify the health department through an online form. A DC Health spokesperson says the department responds in 24 to 48 hours to conduct an investigation and provide recommendations on how to stop further spread.
The spokesperson says they educate businesses about what steps they’re supposed to take through the government’s coronavirus website, and a series of webinars. They’ve received nearly 2,000 forms since the District reopened.
Whether they were required to or not, restaurants and retailers have taken calculated risks by freely sharing information. Do they recommend others follow their lead as cases of the virus continue to spike in the region? Most agree it builds trust, but there are many factors to consider.
“Is it necessary to tell the public if you’re taking the proper steps?” Goedrich from Craft Beer Cellar DC asks. “It’s just so situational. It was a good experience. I feel good about having done that and having been transparent, but it’s situational. Even though our staff member wasn’t within six feet of a customer for 15 minutes, posting it on social media allows [customers] to be informed and make the decision for themselves.”
Ortiz-Olivieri from Trim Hair Salon puts herself in the shoes of the consumer. “I want to know and I want to know what they are doing to make sure that they’re safe because I have not stepped foot in a business that I haven’t researched their safety before I go into them,” she says. “If your intention is to foster a trusting relationship with your community, then yes [you should do it]. But if that’s not like on brand for you, if your brand is a little bit more detached, then maybe not. It just really depends.”
East City Bookshop is one such business that feels connected to the community it serves. Sharing as much information as possible is the best approach, according to Gillman. “This pandemic and its devastating spread shows just how connected we are to each other, and how individual acts affect a community,” she says. “This can be, literally, a life or death decision and honesty and transparency is the best way to take care of each other and slow the spread of the coronavirus.”