Employees at a downtown Dallas restaurant say they are concerned over the handling of a positive COVID-19 case among staff.
After an employee at Yolk in One Arts Plaza tested positive for the virus last week, workers say management did not properly notify staff and had employees who had contact with the infected coworker return to work.
The Chicago-based restaurant chain’s ownership, however, denies the employees’ claims that the situation was mishandled and said it was dealt with according to CDC guidelines. The discrepancy between Yolk management and restaurant staff’s accounts highlights the uncertainty circulating in the restaurant industry regarding what measures restaurants are simply encouraged to put in place versus what is legally required of them when it comes to safety standards during the pandemic.
Vanessa Rodriguez, who started working for the restaurant as a hostess last August, said she came in for her shift on May 26 not feeling well and let her boss know. She had body aches and began to feel feverish and short of breath as she went about her day taking to-go orders and seating guests.
Thinking her symptoms were related to her diabetes and concerned about possible repercussions of leaving work early, she told her manager she wanted to finish her shift when he asked if she wanted to go home, she said. Hours later, she was hospitalized for her symptoms and tested for coronavirus. Her test came back positive.
“I honestly just thought it was a diabetes-related kind of thing. [The assistant manager] asked me a couple times if I wanted to go home or if he needed to call anyone for me, and I said no,” she said.
Rodriguez said she was never screened for symptoms at any point during her time working at the restaurant from March to May, and that the restaurant does not conduct temperature checks for its employees.
Screening employees for symptoms is one of the minimum recommended health protocols for reopened restaurants listed by Texas Health and Human Services, but taking employee temperatures before shifts is not. However, some restaurants have implemented daily temperature checks as an added layer of precaution.
“I do feel like they need to start checking people’s temperatures and start doing procedures like that, because the minute the restaurant started to open back at 25% [capacity], nothing was done like that at all,” Rodriguez said.
Graham Shelton and Vanessa Rodriguez both work at Yolk restaurant in Downtown Dallas.(Graham Shelton )
As soon as she received her positive test result on May 27, she said she contacted her bosses at the restaurant to let them know of her diagnosis. Her boyfriend, Graham Shelton, who is a server at the same restaurant, notified management that he was getting tested as well.
Shelton, who lives with Rodriguez, said he told his bosses that he would self-isolate separately from Rodriguez and was going to stay out of work for at least two weeks, then take an additional COVID-19 test per his doctor’s recommendation to make sure he had not also contracted the virus.
“[Management] told me I didn’t need to get two tests,” Shelton said.
He said the restaurant had him on the schedule and asked if he was coming back into work, but he told them he would not come back in during the two weeks he was self-isolating.
Katelyn Hulvey, who worked on May 26 with Rodriguez and even joked lightheartedly with her at the time that her shortness of breath might be coronavirus, said she learned from a mutual acquaintance that Rodriguez tested positive for the virus the next day. Hulvey, who is a server at Yolk, said she went to get tested as soon as she found out, and her own test came back negative.
Hulvey went into work for her scheduled shift on May 30 and spoke with two other servers who also worked the May 26 shift with Rodriguez. She said both of them told her that they hadn’t been notified by management that an employee tested positive, and they were surprised that they were finding out days later from her.
Hulvey told management that she did not feel comfortable coming into work since she had direct contact with Rodriguez, and asked to isolate herself for two weeks, which they allowed her to do.
“I said, ‘If I come in contact with someone who has coronavirus, I should probably quarantine myself. That’s what the doctor said.’ And the manager said, ‘Well, if we listened to what every doctor said, then no one would have a job and everyone would be at home.’ He was just downplaying it. That’s how I feel,” Hulvey said.
The general manager of the restaurant, Robert Brandon, told The Dallas Morning News that all employees at the One Arts Plaza location were notified by management that an employee tested positive.
“Words travel faster than we can probably imagine, so if people found out before we could have a chance to tell them, that may have happened. I’m not saying it did,” he said.
Brandon said all employees who worked with Rodriguez were tested for the virus and all results came back negative. Some of those employees made the choice to self-isolate, he said.
“They decided to stay home for their own purpose and their own personal reason, so that’s perfectly fine,” Brandon said.
But the owner of Yolk, Taki Kastanis, said that Shelton was required by management to isolate himself for two weeks because he lives with Rodriguez, and he was taken off the schedule for that time period. He also said that employees are screened for symptoms, and that Rodriguez did not exhibit any symptoms during her shift on May 26.
“She got tested not because she had symptoms but because she had to go to the doctor for something else," Kastanis said. "I don’t know many details about this. So she did test positive and we removed her from the schedule immediately. We notified staff that worked in direct contact with her. Many of our staff, we suggested they get tested. We can’t enforce it, but we did suggest it. She has a boyfriend who also works for us. Out of precaution, we also removed him from the schedule. As far as we know, that’s what’s suggested by the CDC.”
Kastanis said that Hulvey made the decision for herself to stay home and that other employees who had contact with Rodriguez on May 26 were not asked to self-isolate.
The CDC’s guidelines, though, state that “employees who have recently had a close contact with a person with COVID-19 should also stay home and monitor their health.”
Restaurant guidelines from Texas Health and Human Services also say, “Do not allow an employee or contractor with known close contact to a person who is lab-confirmed to have COVID-19 to return to work until the end of the 14 day self-quarantine period from the last date of exposure.”
However, these guidelines seem to be simply suggested, not enforced or overseen. The Department of Code Compliance for the city of Dallas, which oversees restaurant inspections, did not respond to interview requests from The Dallas Morning News.
It is also unclear if restaurants are required to notify employees or guests who came into contact with a worker who tested positive for COVID-19.
When an employee at Town Hearth restaurant in Dallas’ Design District tested positive for the virus in March, owner-operator Nick Badovinus said he phoned every employee to let them know. He also said he and his team would try to contact diners who visited the restaurant when the sick employee was there to notify them of possible exposure.
Those measures, along with screening employees for symptoms and taking staff temperatures, appear to fall into the category of encouraged best practices rather than actual requirements with oversight for restaurants operating in the time of COVID-19.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said in a virtual conversation with chef José Andrés last week that restaurant operators should contact their local health officials if an employee tests positive for the virus. Local health departments will determine potential spread and advise on how to proceed. He also said that people who are “high-risk contacts” based on their level of exposure to an infected employee should be quarantined regardless if they have symptoms.
Dr. Emily Williams Knight, Ed.D. and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, also says that local health officials should be contacted by a restaurant if an employee tests positive.
“You need to contact your local health department and talk through what the guidelines are and where those contacts were between the other employees and look at all those contact points where there could have been potential spread,” she said. “The part we want to make sure people understand is it’s not something you should ever hide behind. This is something you need to talk openly with your employees about. You need to have a plan about how you’re going to communicate that and what action you’re going to take to make sure everyone is safe.”
Kastanis said he does not know if Dallas County Health and Human Services was contacted by Yolk staff regarding the confirmed case.
“I don’t want to say yes or no,” he said. “I’m not sure.”
Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, said when someone in Dallas tests positive for the virus, DCHHS receives the positive test result and contacts the sick person in order to identify and notify anyone they might have spread the virus to. So really it is often county officials who contact employers rather than the other way around, he said.
Rodriguez said she has not been contacted by any local officials regarding her COVID-19 test result.
Huang also said that people who had direct contact with a COVID-positive person should quarantine for 14 days, but his department cannot make restaurants enforce that with their employees.
“We want restaurants and all employers to really encourage and educate employees that they stay home if they’re sick or have any symptoms or if they’ve had any close contact with anyone who had COVID-19,” he said. “Those contacts need to quarantine for 14 days if they had close contact.”
Even people who were in close contact with an infected person and tested negative right away must quarantine for 14 days, he said.
“The incubation period average is like five days, so in the first five days they wouldn’t be expected to have a positive test necessarily,” Huang said. “It can take a while before they have a positive test and that’s why, based on what we know about infection, it’s important for that person to stay quarantined for that time period because that’s the period in which they can develop infection and potentially pass it on to others.”
Kastanis said this is the first positive employee case out of the more than a dozen Yolk locations across the country, making it uncharted territory for them.
“This is a different world, right, and no one knows how to deal with it,” he said. “We’re trying to do our best and we have followed all the guidelines we were told. I think we did the right thing and I feel comfortable we did the right thing.”