What To Do if Your Employee Tests Positive for COVID-19

There’s not a one-fits-all protocol for restaurant operators to follow when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. While most operators agree that health and safety of their guests and staff is the number one priority, there is little official guidance available on what steps should be taken to ensure this objective.

Restaurant operators must make decisions that not only protect staff, guests and vendors who enter their facilities, they must also protect their businesses. If their restaurant is forced to close its doors forever, then they will no longer have any employees or customers to protect. For some, closing for just a few days could make it financially impossible to ever reopen again.

Their decisions must balance employee concerns, guest concerns, and business viability. Transparency is important to maintain trust with staff and guests, but does that mean restaurants should close their doors each time an employee has tested positive or been exposed to someone that has?

In a recent survey, more than 350 independent restaurant respondents revealed what they are doing or will do if an employee tests positive. There was general consensus that proper notification and increased sanitation practices were paramount. 1st steps for many were to consult guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and their local health and safety jurisdiction.

But the CDC and health departments are primarily concerned with health and safety steps. Business liability, staff trust and guest perception are something for which there is little legal or public relations guidance. Restaurant operators must rely on their own business sense and how best to maintain the public trust when employees have been exposed.

The following resources have been compiled from numerous sources, including the National Restaurant Association, the CDC, professional contributors, and COVID-19 survey respondents and webinar attendees. Use it to help you establish a policy for your managers and staff to follow when an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

  • Consult CDC guidelines and that of your local health jurisdiction. Notify local health jurisdiction if required to do so.
  • Instruct the employee who has tested positive to stay away from the workplace for at least 10 days including 3 days fever-free without fever-reducing medicine like Tylenol, and with respiratory symptoms resolved. Check CDC website for updates.
  • Notify your staff that an employee has tested positive, without identifying the individual (privacy restrictions issued by CDC).
  • Begin contact tracing within the restaurant to determine coworkers who may have been exposed within the prior two weeks. You may ask the employee who tested positive which coworkers he or she worked within 6 feet for 15+ consecutive minutes.
  • Keep exposed employees out for 14 days from most recent exposure (who worked within 6 feet for 15+ consecutive minutes, live with, care for, or had close contact- with a confirmed or presumed positive). These guidelines come from the CDC, but you should work with your local health department, and when in doubt, be conservative with keeping employees out.
  • Ask unexposed employees to monitor themselves for symptoms, and not to work sick.
  • Conduct a full cleaning and sanitizing of the whole restaurant or facility.
  • Practice even greater focus on handwashing, mask and glove use, and food safety practices.
  • You may ask the sick or exposed employee for a medical clearance note prior to returning for work. Check with your local jurisdiction first, as some jurisdictions, like New York, do not allow employers to ask for such notes.