A Quandary for New York Restaurants and Workers: What to Do About Omicron?

A week before Christmas, Skylar Peak, a busboy at ZiZi, a Mediterranean restaurant in Chelsea, learned in a text message from his manager thata co-worker had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr. Peak took time off to be tested, and it took five days to get a negative report. During that time, several more employees at ZiZi tested positive. The owner closed the restaurant for a week because there weren’t enough people to run it.

ZiZi has reopened, like many New York City restaurants that temporarily shuttered in December during the sudden onslaught of the Omicron variant. But the decisive moves those businesses took last month, and in earlier stages of the pandemic, have given way to something murkier — a time in which both employees and owners are deeply unsure what to do when they or co-workers test positive for the virus. Keep working and risk infecting others? Call in sick and miss out on crucial income? Close the restaurant to protect staff and customers, or take steps to safeguard them and stay open?

Mr. Peak agreed with ZiZi’s decision to close last month, but the continuing uncertainties have left him feeling bewildered and frustrated. When Sharon Hoota, an owner of the restaurant, and his manager recently called the city’s 311 help line three times to ask what to do if a worker tested positive for Covid, Mr. Hoota said they received differing advice on how soon that person should be allowed to return to work.

“To be honest, in the beginning it was very clear what we should do,” Mr. Hoota said. “But now it’s changing a lot.”

Skylar Peak, a busboy at ZiZi, said he respects how Mr. Hoota has been handling Covid safety in the restaurant. Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

While businesses throughout the country have had to calibrate their response to the Omicron variant, few places have been as hard hit as New York City, or as strict in requiring proof of vaccination, for all workers and anyone dining indoors. Many restaurants impose numerous safety precautions, including requirements that staff and customers wear masks.

Yet many New Yorkers in the hospitality business say that the absence of other mandates or even consistent recommendations has left them to figure out how to react when workers become infected — and led to some stark disagreements about whether employers are acting responsibly.

Sage Geyer closed his restaurant, Bar Meridian, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, from Dec. 17 to Dec. 27 after seven of its 12 employees tested positive for Covid. “We just threw up our hands, like, no one is telling us what to do here and we are so exhausted,” he said. “We don’t want to make the wrong decision.”

Neither New York City nor the state requires restaurants to close if workers test positive for Covid. The city’s health department has updated its guidance for employers in response to the winter surge in cases. That advice includes encouraging testing, and ensuring that employees stay home if they feel sick or test positive. On Dec. 27, the department ordered that all on-site employees must be vaccinated.

President Biden has said that health and safety are paramount, while also emphasizing the need to keep businesses and schools running. In late December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the isolation period recommended for people infected with Covid from 10 days to five, and did not require that they obtain a negative test result before coming out of isolation.

Many New York restaurants have stayed open even when they’ve learned that an employee has been infected. Breads Bakery, for example, hasn’t closed any of its four locations since the start of the pandemic.

If an employee tests positive, that person must stay home for five days, then present a negative test result and be symptom-free for at least the past three days to return to work, said Gadi Peleg, the owner. Other employees can continue working without being tested if they don’t have symptoms.

Even with all these safety measures, it has been a struggle. “The last month has been disappointing,” Mr. Peleg said. The bakeries have had more workers out sick than any other time during the pandemic. “It seems like we didn’t get the bang from the buck from getting everyone vaccinated.”

Kaya Trefz, a barista at the location in Union Square, said some employees have been hesitant to get a Covid test because the bakery is short-staffed. If someone “has to call out to get tested, who is going to work and cover that?” she said. “There is a lot of stress and anxiety about that.”

Shannen Joachim left her job at Gabriel Kreuther just before Christmas because she felt the restaurant’s leadership wasn’t taking Covid seriously.Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Shannen Joachim said she quit her job as service director of the Midtown fine-dining restaurant Gabriel Kreuther in late December because she felt it wasn’t doing enough to protect staff and customers from Covid.

She said that last month, members of management encouraged several employees not to get tested, even if they had been exposed to the virus. She said the person in charge of the restaurant’s Covid protocols told her he didn’t believe the virus was real. One chef, she said, led mandatory breathing exercises on Saturdays before service in which many people were unmasked. (All of these allegations were corroborated by other employees.)

Ms. Joachim tested positive the day after she quit. “Now here I am, recovering from Covid, jobless, because they wouldn’t take things seriously,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant wrote in an email that Ms. Joachim’s allegations were “entirely false and inaccurate,” adding that “Restaurant Gabriel Kreuther has and continues to comply with all requirements concerning Covid-19.”

Sam Burros, who works in the bakery at Eataly, an Italian market and restaurant in the Flatiron district, said a co-worker called in sick on a recent Wednesday, telling her manager that she had just tested positive. The manager asked her to come back to work that Sunday, four days later, he said. She ultimately returned the following Friday.

“She was talking to me and was like, ‘I still don’t feel great, I might still be positive,’” he said. (The co-worker, who asked not to be identified, confirmed the details of his account.)

“Yes we are in ‘unprecedented times,’” Mr. Burros said, but the world has been dealing with the pandemic for two years. Just because a certain safety measure is not recommended by the government, managers feel they can overlook it, he said.

Sam Burros said his employer, Eataly, asked a co-worker infected with coronavirus to return to work after she had isolated for only four days. Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

A spokesman for Eataly wouldn’t respond to Mr. Burros’s account. But he said in a statement that the company requires employees who test positive to isolate for five days after their first noticeable symptoms, and to “continue to quarantine after five days until the symptoms have resolved” and they no longer take medications for the symptoms. Anyone who returns to work must wear a medical-grade mask.

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know

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The latest Covid data in the U.S. As the Omicron surge caused case counts to reach record highs and hospitalizations to surpass last winter’s peak, here’s what the data suggests about the variant’s potential toll. Reports of falling infection rates in parts of the U.S., meanwhile, hint that a national peak may be approaching.

The U.S. Covid response. President Biden announced that the U.S. government would deploy military personnel to help overwhelmed hospitals and buy 500 million more tests for distribution to Americans, doubling its previous purchase. Americans will be able to order free rapid tests online beginning Jan. 19.

Around the world. Some European countries have changed their approach to the virus to more closely align with how they handle the flu. Public health experts say the shift might be premature. In China, virus outbreaks and Omicron’s arrival weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics underscored the challenges of holding the Games while sticking to a “zero Covid” policy.

Staying safe. Worried about spreading Covid? Keep yourself and others safe by following some basic guidance on when to test, which mask to pick and how to use at-home virus tests. Here is what to do if you test positive for the coronavirus.

“Given New York City’s surge of the Omicron variant,” the statement added, “we continue to take careful consideration to best protect our staff and adhere to city, state and federal public health best practices.”

Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, an advocacy group for restaurant workers, said the Omicron surge, coupled with a citywide shortage of restaurant workers — which is more acute in New York than in any other state — will prompt even more people to leave the business.

“People should be able to be sick, and the restaurant should close if there are multiple people who are sick,” she said. But workers, she added, are often forced to choose between their safety and a paycheck.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation in April 2020 requiring that employers with five or more employees and a net annual income of $1 million or more give at least five days of paid sick leave to employees if they are ordered to isolate or quarantine because of Covid-19.

But Ms. Jayaraman said city and state officials have not done an adequate job communicating with employers about paid sick leave, and employers, in turn, have not done enough to let restaurant workers know that they qualify.

After Nikolas Vegenas, a bartender at Apotheke in Chinatown and Bar Meridian in Brooklyn, tested positive for the virus in mid-December, he tried to apply for unemployment benefits both over the phone and online. The website “was supercomplicated,” he said. “I called them and waited on the phone, and they said I didn’t qualify.”

Asked whether restaurant workers who test positive for the virus are eligible for unemployment, a spokesman for New York State said: “Unemployment determinations are made on a case-by-case basis, but restaurant workers are eligible for unemployment under the same standards as every other worker.”

But Ms. Jayaraman noted that the state’s eligibility requirements for unemployment include being “ready, willing and able” to work, according to the New York labor department website, and specify that “you may not file for a week when you work more than 30 hours or earn more than $504 gross pay between Monday and Sunday.” This would make it difficult for anyone in isolation for just a week or so to qualify as “able” to work, or deem it worthwhile even to apply, she said.

Getting information about unemployment benefits and best practices for restaurants can be a challenge. A New York Times reporter who reached out to both city and state officials to clarify their health guidance was directed back and forth among multiple departments over two days, and several specific questions went unanswered.

Olivia Sternberg, a server at Le Crocodile, a French bistro in Williamsburg, tested positive shortly before Christmas, and the restaurant gave her two weeks of paid sick leave. Managers and owners checked in on her regularly, she said, to see how she was doing.

Feeling taken care of by her employer gave her a measure of relief, but she still has concerns: Will customers want to dine indoors during yet another surge, in the dead of winter? Will vaccination requirements change, and if they do, how will guests react?

“Here we go again,” she said.

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