In the span of three days, two employees of lakeside Hawaiian/Tex-Mex restaurant Hula Hut found out that they tested positive for COVID-19, and, as a result, the restaurant at 3825 Lake Austin Blvd is now closed through most likely Tuesday, June 9.
The first Hula Hut employee last worked at the restaurant on Monday, May 25, as general manager Elias Chocalas told Eater. The person went home and saw a doctor because they had “felt a little bit fatigued,” and already had heart conditions, as Chocalas recounted. They were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus on Monday, June 1, which is when they informed the restaurant.
Hula Hut then closed temporarily on Monday, and the building was disinfected and sanitized twice: that day and the following morning. However, the restaurant didn’t indicate the temporary shutter on its website or social media accounts. When asked about this, Chocalas said that there was concern that the test wasn’t “effective” enough and the person is being tested again. Not notifying the public “could have been an error on our part,” he said.
Both the CDC and the state’s Open Texas plan don’t require businesses to notify the public and customers about sick employees, only that they should tell Austin Public Health and their staff “immediately.” However, the Texas guidance does note that workers who have had “known close contact” to a diagnosed employee aren’t supposed to go back to work until they self-quarantine for two weeks.
Hula Hut then reopened for service on Tuesday, June 2. Returning staffers were told about the first COVID-19 employee in person “instead of throwing out a blanket statement to all the staff,” Chocalas explained, so that they could address potential questions in real-time. He told the team they didn’t have to work if they didn’t want to because of it. They were also checking the temperature of every employee. The team decided to continue to work, as he recounted to Eater.
Then, on the evening of Wednesday, June 3, a second employee — who had last worked at the restaurant on Tuesday, May 26 — found out they also had COVID-19. The restaurant closed again that day. “The safe thing is to close now,” Chocalas said.
Like before, Hula’s second closure wasn’t immediately indicated on its website nor social media accounts. Chocalas told the team about this second case over the phone. He also told Austin 360 that they were trying to find a testing facility for the staffers. Austin Public Health is offering free testing for the public.
It was during this time that the restaurant de-activated its social media accounts, according to Austin 360. Several Instagram and Facebook posts, as well as comments by people, were deleted during this period, as noticed by Eater.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and stuff that has not necessarily happened,” said Chocalas, to explain why they shut down the accounts for an evening. He was reffering to posts in the Austin service industry Facebook group In the Weeds. A person had said that the news about the first COVID-19 positive staffer was “swept under the rug by management,” and that a housemate of that staffer was still going to work at the restaurant, even though they were in close contact.
Then the restaurant reactivated its social media accounts on Thursday, June 4, and posted a message acknowledging the sick staffers and the current temporary closure. It said that the restaurant is “committed to operating safely during these unique times,” and that it is being “proactive for our employees, customers, and community when a health and safety situation arises that may put any of our community members at risk.” The message went on to describe what happened, but didn’t include the first temporary closure of the restaurant.
The space was sanitized on Thursday, June 4, as well as Friday, June 5. The restaurant will remain closed so that its employees could continue to self-quarantine two weeks from the last day the second employee worked at the building (May 26), which is Tuesday, June 9.
The restaurant had organized a GoFundMe campaign in late March to raise money for laid-off staffers during its temporary forced closure. It had raised $1,887 of its goal of $5,000. When asked about whether the funds from the campaign had been dispersed yet, Chocalas told Eater they toyed with the idea of hosting an appreciation party for the employees using the funds, but now will instead split the money into $18 or $12 payments per person.
Similarly, an employee of Hopdoddy Burger Bar’s South Congress location had tested positive for COVID-19 on May 10 after last working at the restaurant on April 25. The restaurant just deep-cleaned the space, but didn’t temporarily close. Then another staffer found out they had the novel coronavirus on Friday, May 15, after which the restaurant temporarily closed over the weekend for another deep-cleaning and reopened on that Monday, May 18.
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