Covid-19 Risk for restaurant workers: tight kitchens

Many restaurants are struggling with one simple fact – there is usually no easy way to make their kitchens completely safe.

During the coronavirus pandemic, restaurant operators installed partitions and reduced staff to help distance workers. They changed the workflow to minimize contact.

Still, some workers, infectious disease specialists and local health officials say it can be difficult to avoid the tight and crowded kitchen conditions that can promote the transmission of coronavirus.

Masks can slip, especially in hot environments, and become contaminated, while social detachment is often not practical, said Davidson Hamer, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine.


How can restaurant employees be better protected from Covid-19? Join the conversation below.

“It only takes one person in that environment to spread the virus, and everyone is at risk,” he said.

Cooks and food preparers – more than 2 million according to 2019 federal data – are among the majority of the U.S. workforce who cannot do their job remotely. Fast-food kitchens, which are generally smaller than those in full-service restaurants, remained open for much of the year.

Comprehensive data showing whether restaurant workers were infected with Covid-19 at higher rates than other groups of workers is not available. Many local governments do not provide detailed information on outbreaks in the workplace, including the types of employees affected.

Some states and counties, including Oregon, Maryland and Los Angeles County, have reported thousands of cases of coronavirus or likely infections among restaurant workers.

Dinner, drink and the pandemic

Colorado data shows that more than 1,000 restaurant employees this year may have been infected at work in the middle of this month. This is three times the average number of potential employee infections per workplace among nearly 70 different types of workplaces with cases tracked by the state.

Connecticut investigated 21 groups of Covid-19 linked to restaurants between July and December. Connecticut vice-epidemiologist Lynn Sosa of Connecticut said most of these outbreaks are likely linked to the restaurant’s kitchen staff. Most of these kitchens are not large and are not always well ventilated, said Sosa.

Restaurants and bars accounted for a tenth of the 47,357 coronavirus-related workplace complaints this year, starting this month, according to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Restaurant kitchens vary widely in size and airflow, factors that affect the possible transmission of the virus, said Thomas Russo, head of infectious diseases at the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The risk increases when kitchen workers take off their masks or don’t wear them continuously, including chefs who need to taste the food, Russo said.

‘Is very difficult. We are all very close. ‘

– Jay Josef, Starbucks barista in San Bernardino County, California.

Many restaurant executives say they are making great efforts to protect their employees. Taco Bell has created a “quarterback” position to help coordinate the service while managers focus on safety and cleanliness, according to Mike Grams, president and director of global operations for Taco Bell, a division of Yum Brands Inc.

YUM 0.70%

The network also distributes production line workers in their kitchens and requires employees with Covid-19 symptoms to stay at home.

“I will not say that it is perfect or that it cannot be better,” said Mr. Grandma.

McDonalds Corp.

MCD -0.30%

and its franchisees in the United States began last month to conduct checks to ensure that restaurant managers and staff met the company’s health and safety standards. Suggested changes to operations made at the start of the pandemic, with guidance from the Mayo Clinic hospital system, include raising barriers on the grid lines – where workers typically assemble sandwiches side by side – and moving some employees to opposite sides of the tables to add space between them.

The company advised operators to have their employees create an entire sandwich on their own, which is less efficient but safer, said Bill Garrett, senior vice president of McDonald’s operations in the United States. Previously, employees stood side by side at a table and one person passed the sandwich on to the next. Usually, at least two people would make a sandwich.

Dunkin ‘, like other major chains, said that in the case of an employee who tested positive for Covid-19, nearby employees are notified as soon as possible.


Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Recent OSHA complaints against Starbucks Corp.

SBUX -0.05%

, Chick-fil-A Inc., Dunkin ‘Brands Group Inc. and McDonald’s included some employees who said their co-workers tested positive for the virus, but managers did not communicate or handle the matter properly. Insufficient social distance often arose in complaints.

Employees who believe they are working in unsafe working conditions can file a complaint with OSHA online or via a confidential telephone number. Agency officials investigate all allegations of health and safety violations within their jurisdiction, an OSHA spokesman said.

Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin ‘, now a division of Inspire Brands Inc., said that if a worker test is positive, employees who were in close contact with the individual are notified as soon as possible. possible and they may need to be quarantined.

Companies say they follow government guidelines and have taken a variety of measures, including increasing social distance, adding panels to separate workers and customers and keeping many cafeterias closed.

Michael Harris displays a photo of his late wife, Shonda Harris. She was the manager of a Taco Bell in Denham Springs, Louisiana.


L. Kasimu Harris for The Wall Street Journal

Shonda Harris, a 46-year-old manager of a Taco Bell in Louisiana, died in July after contracting the virus, according to relatives. Harris also worked a few shifts at a nearby Burger King, said her husband, Michael Harris. He said he was not sure how his wife contracted the virus, but believes that restaurants should have done more to protect workers.

Taco Bell was saddened by Harris’s death, said a spokeswoman for Taco Bell, who added that the owners of the Taco Bell where Harris worked donated to his family and considered her a dear maid.

Burger King, part of Restaurant Brands International Inc.,

QSR -0.15%

he said the health and safety of workers and customers are his top priorities.

For many restaurants, finding employees and keeping them healthy will likely remain a challenge. Some employees concerned about contracting the virus are refusing work shifts, prompting companies to increase pandemic-related bonuses and holding hiring events.

“Some people don’t want to leave the house,” said Jack Hartung, chief financial officer at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. “Some people will be overtime. They can apply for a temporary license. “

Starbucks, which this month postponed some happy hour promotions after some baristas complained that they caused overcrowding in stores, is increasing pay for its US store employees by at least 10%. He said the increase is intended to help retain and retain employees and is part of a multi-year commitment to increase wages. Meanwhile, Chipotle said it has given more than $ 40 million in payments for pandemic-related assistance and bonuses.

Starbucks canceled some happy hour specials after employees said they caused a crowd.


Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

At a Starbucks in San Bernardino County, California, at least four baristas usually make drinks behind the counter, said Jay Josef, a 28-year-old barista. Stickers on the floor show employees where to stay to stay apart, but he said he found coworkers.

“Is very difficult. We are all very close, ”said Josef, who said he usually makes 500 drinks per shift.

Kevin Johnson, chief executive of Starbucks, said the company paid employees who are quarantined at home and is analyzing local infection rates to determine safe personnel levels. “We have no problem closing a store to do that,” said Johnson.

Ken Gonthier, 20, stepped down as manager of a McDonald’s in New Hampshire in April, partly because he feared becoming infected with the coronavirus and passing it on to his father. He now works in a call center job at his new home in Nevada.

The owner of McDonald’s in New Hampshire said he required employees to wear masks and provided training on social detachment.

Gonthier said he is happy that he is not closer to so many people for hours in an enclosed space. “People arrive and realize that there is not much they can do to stay safe,” he said.

Write to Heather Haddon at heather[email protected] and Micah Maidenberg at [email protected]

More about Covid-19 vaccines

Copyright © 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8