Restaurants, diners weigh risk and reward of going out to eat as COVID-19 spreads

The last two months have been a rollercoaster for Bay Area restaurants. They were finally allowed to reopen after COVID-19 forced them to close for more than a month. But only three weeks in, many have had to close again after employees tested positive.

MacDinton’s, Parks and Rec St. Pete, and the Galley were among many restaurants that closed temporarily for a deep clean, but whether they have to close or even tell the public about possible exposure is somewhat unclear.

On Monday, Hillsborough County's Florida Department of Health director told members of the Emergency Policy Group that contact tracing shows restaurant workers and their customers are testing positive.

“As we talk about contact tracing, just to give you a little bit of our patterns, we are seeing increasing examples of friends and coworkers going out to an establishment. Whether they infected each other before or during [is unclear,] but they did have in common going to one of the entertainment venues,” said Dr. Douglas Holt, the director of FDOH Hillsborough County. “Restaurants, predominantly the coworkers, we’re seeing [cases,] again don’t know if they were infected outside of the restaurant or by their patrons.”

Some restaurants temporarily close for longer periods of time while others reopen open to the public, and the varied responses call questions to what protocols restaurants are legally required to do. Attorney Jeff Koster said there is little guidance.

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“I think if we look at this first from the restaurants' perspective, restaurants, I think, have an obligation to practice appropriate social distancing. Their servers and staff should wear their masks. They should sanitize the tables between seatings,” said Koster, an attorney with Older, Lundy & Alvarez

According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, restaurants are required to disinfect high-touch areas, socially distance tables, limit groups, screen employees and watch for them to display symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends informing all staff and close contacts in the case of COVID-19 exposure and waiting 24 hours to clean the affected areas, but those steps are not required.

While the state encourages restaurants to follow those guidelines, businesses are not required to shut down or even inform the public if an employee tests positive. No matter how a restaurant responds, attorneys said establishment should not be negligent, in which case a restaurant knowingly allows COVID-19 exposure.

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“One of the things that a consumer would have to prove is causation, meaning that visit to that restaurant caused me to contract COVID. One of the defenses to any negligence lawsuit is assumption of the risk,” said Koster.

He added that customers must weigh the risks.

“Whether it’s Lowe’s or a restaurant or any other establishment and there are other people in there, you’re assuming a certain level of risk that you might contract COVID in spite of your best efforts, washing your hands, wearing a mask,” said Koster.

State officials said inspectors visit restaurants to make sure they are following the guidelines provided and any positive COVID-19 cases among workers are reported to the Florida Department of Health, which does contact tracing.