How to best inform the public when an employee tests positive with the coronavirus

Andy Downing
Stauf's in Grandview set guidelines for customers and staff to ensure their safety during Ohio's shelter in place order due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Businesses have been put in an unenviable position from the earliest days of this ongoing pandemic. With government support limited andin many ways deeply flawed, numerous places have been forced to weigh the health and safety of both employees and customers against the economic reality that operating in some form is necessary to have any chance of the business outlasting COVID-19, in addition to providing for current workers.

“We heard from some people, for sure, customers telling us, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be open.’ And it’s hard to explain to someone that we do need to be open, at least until we can figure out how to pay our employees,” One Line director of coffee Dave Formansaid in April, echoing concerns expressed by Wolf’s Ridge Brewing co-owner Bob Szuter later the same month.

These issues have returned to the fore in recent days as scores of bars and restaurants, many of which resumed operations in late May following Gov. Mike DeWine’s push to reopen the state for business,have announced temporary closures after revealing that one or more employees have contracted the coronavirus. 

Absent guidelines, the responses have varied greatly — not only in terms of shutdown protocols, but in how the business has informed the public and what types of details are shared. Standard Hall initially detailed an employee’s positive test on social media, but quickly deleted the post. Regardless, the bar ceased operations for a handful of days to have the space sanitized and employees tested. Some, such as Northstar Cafe, have carried on regular hours of operation despite a vague post on social media that noted the eatery had employees test positive at “some of our different restaurant locations.”Still others, such as Fox in the Snow, have chosen a more proactive route, temporarily ceasing operations absent a positive test on staff. 

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Out of an abundance of caution, we are temporarily closing our Fourth Street and German Village shops so that our employees who may have been exposed while either visiting or working at affected businesses can get tested,” Fox in the Snowwrote on Facebook. “We will be paying all staff during the closure and will reopen as soon as we feel confident our staff continues to be negative and it is safe to do so. Working in the service industry is so challenging right now and we don’t want our employees to feel unsafe or unnecessarily exposed.”

Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in Grandview was one of the first businesses to get swept up in this new round of positive cases, and, absent clear governmental guidelines, its transparent approach to operating a business in the midst of a pandemic could serve as a template. The coffee roaster, which operates seven locations city-wide, made its first public post 20 minutes after learning of the employee’s positive test, offering details on when the person last worked (the previous Wednesday morning), its immediate plans (the store is closed and will be fully sanitized), as well as how current employees would be cared for during the shutdown (the store said it would pay for testing and quarantine, as well as providing meals for any staff member who was food insecure). 

The business also said it would provide continual public updates, which it did, posting when the store was cleaned and then again with reopening plans, which included increasingly expanded hours as more employees tested negative and were able to return to work.

“That was the promise,” said Stauf’s Coffee president Mark Swanson. “Being transparent to the customer was a way to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to hide anything. We’re going to tell you exactly what happens and that way, hopefully, you can trust us and you can trust that we’re doing things the best way.'”

Swanson said planning has been key to the store’s coronavirus approach, going back to early March when CFO Bill Sturgess had the foresight to purchase a pallet of hand sanitizer. “Even when we started seeing reports in early March, we started doubling our sanitizing efforts,” Swanson said. “And the week before the governor ordered a shutdown, we sat down and said, ‘OK, what does this look like when we do get shut down, because it’s not an if, it’s a when.’ … And when the order came down, we were ready in that moment.”

Throughout, Swanson said decisions have been guided by what he referred to as “the three-legged stool,” which center on a trio of factors in descending order of importance: staff safety and health, customer safety and health, and revenue. “We felt like if we were doing everything right for our team, that means we’re doing everything right for our customers," he said. "And if we’re doing that, then we’ll be trustworthy enough to visit.”