Covid-19 Risk for Workers at Restaurants: Cramped Kitchens

Many restaurants are struggling with a simple fact—there often is no easy way to make their kitchens entirely safe.

During the coronavirus pandemic, restaurant operators installed dividers and cut back staff to help with distancing among workers. They changed the workflow to minimize contact.

Still, some workers, infectious-disease experts and local health officials say it can be difficult to avoid cramped and crowded kitchen conditions that can foster transmission of the coronavirus.

Masks can slip, particularly in hot environments, and get contaminated, while social distancing often isn’t practical, said Davidson Hamer, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine.


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

Cooks and food-preparation workers—more than two million according to 2019 federal data—are among the majority of the U.S. workforce who can’t do their jobs remotely. Fast-food kitchens, which are generally smaller than those in full-service restaurants, have remained open for much of the year.

Overall, the industry has had a difficult spell, with tens of thousands of restaurants closing amid the pandemic and resulting restrictions from states and localities.

Comprehensive data showing whether restaurant workers have been infected by Covid-19 at higher rates than other worker groups isn’t available. Many local governments don’t provide detailed information about outbreaks at workplaces, including the types of employees affected.

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

Dining, Drinking and the Pandemic

Colorado data show more than 1,000 restaurant employees this year may have been infected on the job as of the middle of this month. That is three times the average number of potential employee infections per workplace among almost 70 different types of job sites with cases tracked by the state.

Connecticut investigated 21 clusters of Covid-19 tied to restaurants between July and late December. Connecticut deputy epidemiologist

Lynn Sosa

said most of those outbreaks are likely tied to restaurant-kitchen staff. Most such kitchens aren’t big and often aren’t well-ventilated, Dr. Sosa said.

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

Restaurant kitchens vary widely in size and air flow, factors that affect possible transmission of the virus, said

Thomas Russo,

head of infectious disease at Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo. Risk increases when kitchen workers take off their masks or don’t continuously wear one, including chefs who need to sample food, Dr. Russo said.

‘It’s super hard. We are all so close together.’

— Jay Josef, a Starbucks barista in San Bernardino County, Calif.

Many restaurant executives say they are making extensive efforts to protect their employees. Taco Bell has created a “quarterback” position to help coordinate service while managers focus on safety and cleanliness, according to

Mike Grams,

president and global chief operating officer of Taco Bell, a division of

Yum Brands Inc.

YUM 0.70%

The chain also spread out production-line workers in its kitchens and requires employees with Covid-19 symptoms to stay home.

“I won’t say it’s perfect or that it can’t be better,” said Mr. Grams.

McDonald’s Corp.

MCD -0.30%

and its U.S. franchisees last month began conducting checks to ensure restaurant managers and crew were abiding by the company’s health and safety standards. Suggested changes to operations made earlier in the pandemic, with guidance from the Mayo Clinic hospital system, include erecting barriers at grill lines—where workers typically assemble sandwiches side-by-side—and shifting some employees to opposite sides of tables to add space between them.

The company has advised operators to have their employees build an entire sandwich on their own, which is less efficient but safer, said

Bill Garrett,

McDonald’s U.S. senior vice president of operations. Previously, employees stood side by side at a table, and one person passed the sandwich to the next person. At least two people assembled one sandwich, typically.

Dunkin’, like other major chains, said that in the event of a worker testing positive for Covid-19, employees in close contact 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 those from some employees who said co-workers tested positive for the virus but managers didn’t properly communicate or address the matters. Insufficient social-distancing came up frequently in the complaints.

Employees who believe they are working in unsafe working conditions can make a complaint to OSHA online or through a confidential phone number. Agency officials investigate all safety- and health-violation allegations within its jurisdiction, an OSHA spokesman said.

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

The companies say they follow government guidance and have taken a variety of measures including increasing social distancing, adding panels to separate workers from each other and customers and keeping many dining rooms closed.

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


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. Ms. Harris also worked some shifts at a nearby Burger King, said her husband,

Michael Harris.

He said he wasn’t sure how his wife contracted the virus, but said he believes the restaurants should have done more to safeguard workers.

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

Burger King, part of

Restaurant Brands International Inc.,

QSR -0.15%

said that health and safety of workers and customers are its top priorities.

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

“Some people don’t want to leave their house,” said

Jack Hartung,

chief financial officer of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. “Some people will pass on the hours. They might ask for a temporary leave of absence.”

Starbucks, which this month postponed some happy-hour promotions after some baristas complained they had caused crowding in stores, is increasing pay for its U.S. store employees by at least 10%. It said the raise aims to help retain and keep employees and is part of a multiyear commitment to boost pay. Meanwhile, Chipotle said it has given more than $40 million in pandemic-related assistance pay and bonuses.

Starbucks canceled some happy-hour specials after employees said they caused crowding.


Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At a Starbucks in San Bernardino County, Calif., at least four baristas typically make drinks behind the counter, said

Jay Josef,

a 28-year-old barista there. Stickers on the floor show employees where to stand to keep apart, but he said he has bumped into co-workers.

“It’s super hard. We are all so close together,” said Mr. Josef, who said he often makes as many as 500 drinks a shift.

Kevin Johnson,

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

Ken Gonthier, 20, left a manager position at a McDonald’s in New Hampshire in April, in part because he worried he could get infected with the coronavirus and spread it to his father. He now works in a call-center job from his new home in Nevada.

The owner of the New Hampshire McDonald’s said he requires employees to wear masks and has provided training on social distancing.

Mr. Gonthier said he is glad he is no longer near so many people for hours in a closed space. “People come in and realize there’s only so much they can do to be safe,” he said.

More on the Covid-19 Vaccines

Write to Heather Haddon at and Micah Maidenberg at

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