COVID-19 test results at Baan Siam
COVID-19 test results at Baan Siam Credit: Courtesy of Baan Siam

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At Baan Siam, rapid at-home testing kits for COVID-19 are as readily available for staff as Singha beer is for customers. The Thai restaurant in Mount Vernon Triangle began ordering tests in bulk on Dec. 10, when they first heard about the omicron variant. Now, whenever an employee feels sick or a bit tired they can test when they show up to work. “We hand these things out like candy,” says managing partner Tom Healy

The restaurant has taken COVID precautions seriously from the outset of the pandemic and went two years without any closures tied to employees testing positive. But when omicron arrived, the highly contagious variant forced them to dial-up their strategy. “Omicron annihilated everybody’s plans that they had for how to protect themselves, so we moved to mass testing,” Healy says.

Baan Siam has a lean team, which heightens the stakes of preventing an outbreak. “The difference between having the entire staff out and having one staff member out is early detection,” Healy says. “We spent thousands of dollars on tests. Did we save thousands of dollars by not being forced to close? Absolutely.” According to Healy, being closed for a weekend could cost the restaurant as much as $75,000.

A wave of such temporary closures hit restaurants when omicron ripped through the District in December and January. The city responded to the surge by reinstating an indoor mask mandate and a proof of vaccination requirement for indoor dining. But when places reopened, it was often with a new emphasis on testing given that even vaccinated and boosted people can contract and spread COVID-19. Employees say they’ve take a rapid test every day over certain periods, but, in reality, that’s tricky to pull off. 

Between the dearth of workers and sometimes unpredictable supply of tests, District restaurants have found themselves in a tough spot as they try to remain open. A few have responded by implementing routine testing, while others have adopted a hodgepodge of make-it-work strategies mirroring how they’ve tackled other pandemic problems like staffing up and sourcing ingredients.

The workers who spoke to City Paper for this story over the past week and a half requested to be identified by their first names because they wanted to protect future employment opportunities, weren’t authorized to speak on behalf of their employers, or were fearful about being identified because of their immigration status. 

“We don’t test as a group, but it’s expected that if you’re feeling sick, if you test regularly and if your tests results aren’t negative, then you’ll alert a manager and won’t come in,” says Laura, a food runner at a restaurant in Silver Spring. According to internal memos from the restaurant, all unvaccinated staff are supposed to get tested every other week, but she doesn’t know if that’s being followed. 

Laura tested positive a few weeks ago. She only missed a few shifts as she had already taken off for family reasons, but she estimates that she lost about $1,200 in income.“Working six days a week is not what I want to do with my life, but it’s what I have to do in order to cover rent and have enough left over for not even luxuries, but small luxuries like going to dinner and being able to grab a drink,” she says.

A few restaurants have wooed workers back to the hospitality industry by offering better benefits like free mental health counseling, but few offer paid sick leave beyond what’s required by law. The Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act requires employers to offer a certain amount of paid time off depending on the size of the business. Employees who exhaust their ASSLA benefits might also be eligible for unemployment insurance, provided a separation from employment, a lay-off, or a reduction in hours has occurred.

That said, Laura feels safer at her restaurant job than at her daytime job. She trusts her restaurant colleagues to get tested if they feel sick, but she’s not so sure about the people she shares an office with. “There’s so many of us and we’re all in the office sharing those close quarters, that’s what scares me,” Laura says. She isn’t sure if the entire staff there is vaccinated. She also believes that’s where she caught COVID. 

Still, Laura wishes her restaurant job was in the position to test employees more regularly. “I don’t think that’s a thing that [the restaurant] can handle just because of getting the tests,” she says. “Even if it’s rapid, it’s still very difficult to find mass quantities of rapid tests on an ongoing basis. I don’t think that’s possible, which sucks, but that would make me feel safer.”

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington recommends a few resources for finding tests. Some companies, such as Acme Paper and Supply Co. have tests available for bulk purchase and some restaurants have been ordering through them. The same goes for Reditus Laboratories. As a last resort, RAMW has tests available for those who are having a hard time finding them.

Will, a bartender at a restaurant near Union Station, says there’s no real procedure for when someone tests positive beyond the scramble to find workers to fill in. “There’s only seven people we can rely on now,” he says. A COVID-positive staff member can only try to give those on the schedule enough notice so they can either scramble to find someone or prepare to work with a leaner team.

“That’s just the restaurant industry standard right now,” Will says. “Before there were at least a lot more part-time and full-time workers that were able to pick up a shift. Now, if one person can’t do it, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re gonna be a little short staffed tonight and go from there’. Or, ‘Someone’s pulling a double.’” Back when he first started in the industry in 2015, Will could plan weeklong vacations on short notice and easily find coverage. “There’s no perfect solution. It’s as good as it can get right now.” 

Will thinks keeping rapid tests on site at the restaurant could make a difference. He’s a District resident and has relied on getting the free at-home kits in order to know that he’s clear to work. He thinks the city has done a decent job at making rapid tests available. Some of his co-workers coming from Virginia have had a harder time finding tests and thus feel less confident clocking in.

Carlos, a sous chef at a restaurant in Shaw, tells City Paper that his employer keeps rapid tests from CVS on hand just in case employees haven’t been able to get tested on their own time because they have other jobs or childcare responsibilities. If someone tests positive, there’s an established procedure. 

Whichever department the employee is a part of will isolate until they can all get tested. Anyone who was working the last day the infected staff member was at the restaurant also gets tested. Worst case scenario, the restaurant can switch to serving takeout only with a skeleton crew of healthy employees to stay afloat. Still, Carlos worries about asymptomatic spread. “In a restaurant, if one person gets sick, everybody gets sick, whether they like it or not,” he says.

When omicron hit in late December, that’s just what happened at The Commodore in Dupont Circle. They were one of many spots that had to shut down between Christmas and New Years. “[COVID] tore through us like it tore through so many other places,” says general manager Rob Van de Graaff. “I physically didn’t have the staff to be cooking or doing any of that.” 

Van de Graaff picks up free tests at a nearby library to have available just in case an employee hasn’t been able to get tested on their own or they learn at work that were exposed. After his own battle with COVID-19 almost a year ago, he remains cautious about spread. He spent a week in the hospital and it was almost two weeks before he was back on his feet. Now he gets tested every week. 

After a brutal winter when reservations dropped off across the city, Van de Graaff  is cautiously optimistic that things will improve if restaurants can just hang on a bit longer for warmer weather to arrive. He expects his restaurant’s patio business to pick up, though the pandemic could still derail operations. 

“Say it’s in the 60s, the patio’s gonna be packed, and I don’t know if I’m going to get texts from one or two of my staff members being like, ‘Hey, I just tested positive,’” Van de Graaff says. “When you are this short staffed, there’s not any margin for error. …You got to thread that needle perfectly every time.”

Securing tests and testing employees regularly is just one more step of service hospitality workers and managers have had to add to their routine over the past two years. “If we restaurants and bars hear, ‘Well, you’ve got to figure out how to do this or that,’ one more time, I’m going to pull my nearly nonexistent hair out of my head,” Van de Graaff says.

Van de Graaff was right to expect change. This morning, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a plan to lift the vaccine requirement for indoor dining starting on Feb. 15 and will let the indoor mask mandate for bars and restaurants expire at the end of the month. Bowser says cases have dropped by 90 percent and hospitalizations have decreased by 95 percent. 

But as of Friday, the weekly case rate per 100,000 D.C. residents was still above 100. Anything above 100 is considered high transmission by the Centers for Disease Control. D.C. has also reported 16 known COVID-19 deaths since Feb. 4. Healy from Baan Siam says the loosening of D.C. government restrictions won’t impact his testing strategy. 

“D.C.’s policies regarding masks and vaccine mandates may have changed again, but that won’t affect our testing strategy,” he says. “We were testing before this, we will keep testing going forward. It’s just good business sense to know as much as you can, as quickly as you can.”