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Coronavirus cases up at Tampa Bay bars and restaurants, with little guidance on how to handle

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, what should a bar or restaurant do?

On Friday, shortly after 7 p.m., Pete Boland announced last call at his St. Petersburg bar and restaurant the Galley.

The owner of the downtown spot made his way around to tables and delivered the news: Some employees had tested positive for COVID-19, and the Galley would be closing hours before its usual 3 a.m. shutdown. One more round, and that was it.

Some of the customers were surprised, but agreeable. Some thought the idea ridiculous, and said so. Some appeared frightened and panicked, though Boland reassured them that no one currently infected was working at the restaurant that evening.

“We had a couple of staffers call out the beginning of last week and then it was just another one and another one,” Boland said.

Five of Boland’s 35 employees have reported testing positive for the coronavirus. Closing the restaurant temporarily — at least until everyone reports negative test results — feels like the right move, he said.

People sit outside at Tampa's Meat Market. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Boland’s business isn’t the only one to report sick employees recently. On the same night he closed the Galley, other St. Petersburg bars shuttered after their employees tested positive for COVID-19, including nearby Park & Rec DTSP and the Avenue. And in the days since, a growing number of restaurants and bars across the Tampa Bay area have seen more positive cases.

The response from owners has varied widely. Some, like the Galley, Park & Rec DTSP and Tarpon Springs’ Rusty Bellies have shut down while the entire staff undergoes testing. Others, like Hyde Park Village’s Meat Market and Cali (formerly Ciccio Cali) in St. Petersburg, have stayed open but say they are engaging in thorough cleaning, testing and contact tracing measures. Some businesses, like Hawkers and Trophy Fish in St. Pete, temporarily closed recently as a precaution, but did not say whether employees there tested positive for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Jannus Live announced it will temporarily shut the doors of the Pelican Pub, the Landing and Detroit Liquors after one staff member tested positive for COVID-19.

Related: Coronavirus cases close three bars around Jannus Live

Aside from reporting cases to the Florida Department of Health, there are limited guidelines for how to handle an employee testing positive for COVID-19. Restaurants and bars are not required to close. And they don’t have to disclose to the public when staff members have tested positive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that if an employee is sick or showing symptoms, they should be separated from other employees and sent home. Employers should also determine who else could have been exposed to the virus and inform employees of their possible exposure, also called contact tracing.

But the rest is up to restaurants. And the decision to close, even if just temporarily, isn’t an easy one. This uptick in local cases comes roughly three weeks after bars were allowed to reopen and two months after restaurants were allowed to welcome diners back. Many fear the public backlash and media attention that can accompany disclosures.

Patrons are seen outside Tangra Nightclub in the early morning hours of June 14 in Ybor City. More bars and restaurants around Tampa Bay are reporting employees testing positive for the coronavirus. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Shortly after his announcement, Boland said he received a barrage of negative feedback.

“The rumor mill (was) spreading like wildfire,” he said. “Within an hour of me knowing, I already had a one-star Yelp review saying I was trying to deceive the public."

Some are choosing not to disclose when a member of their staff has become infected. The Tampa Bay Times received several tips regarding local restaurants and bars with COVID-19 exposures that had not been made public yet.

Representatives from Cali in St. Petersburg and Sunset Grill in Ruskin confirmed to the Times that employees at their businesses had tested positive for the virus recently (three people at Cali and one at Sunset Grill). Both restaurants said the infected employees were quarantined and that the businesses had undergone deep sanitation and cleaning treatments.

The symptoms for restaurant and bar employees have varied. A bartender at the Galley who tested positive had a scratchy throat. The sick employee at Sunset Grill went to the doctor when she started vomiting and had chest pains. Some others said they displayed no symptoms at all.

“There’s really no good guidance,” said David Tornek, the CEO at Tampa’s Meat Market, which on Monday reported that at least one of their employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“There (are) ordinances and there are suggestions and we’ve gone through it with our legal department and we’re trying to do what’s best for our staff and our customers,” he said. “No one has navigated this before, you have to kind of feel your way through it.”

An employee sanitizes her hands outside at Tampa's Meat Market. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Tornek said his team was notified that an employee tested positive after a night out with a group of friends, several of whom also tested positive for the virus. That employee is currently quarantined for the recommended 14 days and Tornek said all other staff who were in contact with the employee are also being tested.

When asked about the decision not to shut down the restaurant, Tornek pointed out that doing so could result in a never-ending cycle.

“What our staff does when they are not working, where they go and who they hang out with — it’s not something that we have control over,” he said. “We also have no control over our customers and who they hang out with. So, if we shut down for two weeks and then reopened and one employee decided to go to a party somewhere and someone was infected and they walked back into the restaurant — then, there you go, we’re back to square one.”

The sudden increase in reported COVID-19 cases at local bars and restaurants comes amid an uptick in cases statewide. In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, public health officials have said the number of positive cases in young people is on the rise — the percentage of infections in people under 34 years old has nearly doubled since mid-May.

Though there has been little response from the state, the surge in cases among Tampa Bay’s younger residents has not been lost on local leaders. Following the news that several downtown St. Petersburg bars closed, Mayor Rick Kriseman implored affected bars and restaurants to take immediate action if anyone on their staff tested positive.

Patrons are seen outside a bar along Seventh Avenue in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 14, 2020 in the Ybor City area of Tampa [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“All restaurant, bars in St. Pete that have had an employee test positive should follow the lead of these places,” Kriseman tweeted. “Shut down, allow for contact tracing, test all employees, and reopen when safe. Residents must also do what is necessary to keep St. Pete safe.”

The City of Tampa sent an email to bar owners last week that pointed to the spike in cases and reminded them of the current social distancing and capacity regulations. In the coming weeks, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco will visit bars and restaurants to make sure those rules are being enforced, the email said.

In response to a query from the Times that asked how bar and restaurant owners should proceed, an email from Mayor Jane Castor’s office said that they “commend businesses that have done the right thing in light of difficult circumstances.”

“We strongly encourage any establishment that has a test positive to immediately disclose this information to both staff and customers, require that all employees be tested before returning to work, and take appropriate steps to sanitize the facility,” the email said.

Stephen Schrutt, who runs Park & Rec DTSP and The Avenueas well as No Vacancy and Park & Rec Tampa, said that going forward all visitors to his bars will have to undergo temperature checks prior to entering, along with the employees. It’s one of a number of precautions being discussed by restaurant and bar owners, who are unsure of how to more aggressively manage crowd control while still welcoming business.

“We want people to social distance but they don’t really do that,” Schrutt said. “Telling people to social distance is definitely difficult — we try to tell them the whole time but people are definitely doing what they want, and we’re not seeing guests with masks.”

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