On Nov. 21, just five days ahead of Thanksgiving, for which Plaza Grill already had 300 confirmed holiday dinner orders and another 200 awaiting confirmation, owner Bill Chino picked up the phone and started calling customers to cancel. A front-of-house employee had just tested positive for COVID-19. The call list was daunting, he says, "but it was the right thing and the prudent thing to do."
Plaza Grill was not alone. Within that week, five Arcata restaurants shut down temporarily due to employees possibly being exposed to or testing positive for COVID-19. It was the same week then county Health Officer Teresa Frankovich noted in a media availability that, along with travel, social gatherings beyond the three-household outdoor gatherings allowed under state guidelines — including a party with some 100 people in attendance — were driving a spike in positive cases that had pushed Humboldt into the purple "widespread" risk tier Nov. 24 and has only grown steeper in December. The closures and the increased restrictions of the purple tier have been harsh blows to already struggling restaurant owners and employees faced with shrinking margins, bills and little choice but to just keep working.
The Facebook announcements came in a flurry. On Nov. 15, Septentrio Winery announced it was shutting down after a visitor to its tasting room tested positive. The next day, Wildflower posted that "a couple of staff members" had been potentially exposed to COVID-19 and it was closing temporarily. On Nov. 18, sister operations Salt Fish House and Campground announced they were both closing due to an employee's positive test.
That same day, Septentrio Winery announced its staff had been cleared with negative tests but it would only reopen for curbside sales, with no indoor or outdoor seating. Wildflower, too, shared on Nov. 21 that all staff had tested negative for the virus and it would open for brunch the following day. Salt and Campground were back in service Dec. 1 and 2, respectively, and Plaza Grill, once its 15 staffers tested negative, was back for takeout dinners Dec. 2. The closures may seem relatively brief but at Salt and Campfire, for example, some 25 staff at each restaurant were not working and not getting paid for two weeks.
"I was hoping we wouldn't be affected but I was ready," says Chino. "When you think about it, it's just a game of numbers." On Nov. 16, he and manager Laura Schramer learned two front-of-house employees had been exposed to COVID-19 outside of work and immediately took them off the schedule. Schramer and others who'd worked closely with them self-quarantined and ultimately tested negative. On Nov. 21, when the employees' tests came back positive, Chino shuttered the restaurant. "They did not require me," he says of Department of Health and Human Services staff. Instead, he says they helpfully laid out the information about potential spread and helped him think through the choice.
Schramer, meanwhile, worked with contact tracers to go over scheduling back to Nov. 14, the established date of exposure. While both employees had worked that evening, neither had any shifts between then and being taken off the schedule and quarantining.
Chino said he was told the employees had attended a fairly large social gathering. He was grateful they came forward and wondered at how the virus might have spread if someone hadn't shown symptoms.
A person who spoke to the Journal on condition of anonymity says they'd hosted a party at their home with friends, some of whom work in the restaurant industry, on Nov. 9, though it was not the 100-person gathering mentioned by Frankovich. (The Journal could not confirm any connection between it and any specific restaurant closures and DHHS does not release that information.)
"It was a lot of people I'd been seeing throughout the quarantine and it felt OK," they say. The following day, they say they learned one of the attendees was feeling ill. "We told everyone right away," they say, adding they themselves isolated immediately and other guests "quarantined, called in to their jobs." Only a couple had worked shifts in restaurants in that one-day period, they say, and fellow employees eventually tested negative.
"[DHHS] called me immediately as soon as I got a positive test result. Within 10 minutes." From there, they went through the guest list with a contact tracer, who instructed them to continue to isolate. "The one thing they reiterated to me was that it's in-home gatherings and travel" spreading the virus.
The host's own symptoms were relatively mild and they spent about six days sick with severe body aches and had some lingering "lung issues." Along with regret over holding the party, they are concerned about potential blame being cast on restaurants that are "doing their due diligence" and working hard to follow protocols. "It happened at a private in-home gathering. And we just had normal people that were already [podding] with us. And one of them happened to be sick."
Some of that blame may have been cast toward Septentrio's tasting room. On Dec. 7, a post on the winery's Facebook page read, "It has come to our attention that a rumor is being spread that Septentrio Winery 'hosted a super-spreader event with a live band, resulting in 30+ cases.' This is false and is based off of misinformation and slander of our very small family business." It went on to say there had been no party and no band, and that the winery had never been asked to take part in contact tracing or to close. "Our doors are closed for service now until we feel confident that our community has the current case spike under control. This is not an easy decision to make as a small business." Calls to the winery were not returned before the Journal went to press.
"What's hurting us the most is the uncertainty," says Chino, who's moved dining between indoor and outdoor to takeout only and had to cut staff while crossing his fingers he can get them back later when restrictions lift. He says receiving federal funding has helped but he didn't plan for the pandemic and its resulting restrictions to last quite this long.
But Chino says losing the Thanksgiving revenue wasn't as painful as it could have been. For one thing, not all the ingredients had been purchased yet and he was able to freeze or store others. "If we can't utilize it in some way, we'll give it to the food bank." What struck him most was that not one customer in all those cancelation phone calls was angry. Instead, they expressed concern for the health of his staff. He says he even got offers of help from other local businesses.
"As troublesome as those few days after the positive test were, sort of the upshot of the whole event was that the downside was overshadowed by the upside," says Chino. "It was just a feel-good moment."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.