The Fold Botanas & Bar resumed outdoor dining on its patio and parking lot veranda on Thursday, Jan. 14, after shutting down all dine-in options after three employees tested positive for COVID-19 over the Christmas holiday.
Aside from a directive issued by Governor Hutchinson in September allowing buffets to resume with self-service and an announcement in November that bars have to close by 11 p.m., restaurant guidelines from the state haven’t been updated since the phase two reopening of the economy in June despite the surge in cases, hospitalizations and a report from the White House COVID-19 task force in November recommending the state reduce indoor dining capacity from 66 percent to 25 percent.
Most of us know the phase two rules by now. Patrons must wear masks to enter a restaurant and wear them until they’re served food or drinks or while en route to the restroom. Restaurant employees that interact with customers must wear masks and there must be 6 feet between occupied seats at adjacent tables. Back-of-house staff members must wear gloves when preparing food and are encouraged to wear masks.
Whether or not the directives are preventing infection in restaurants, staff members are still catching COVID-19 somewhere. Many area restaurants have had to temporarily close, some more than once, due to staff infections and quarantines following the guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Limiting staff exposure is difficult in a chaotic work environment like a restaurant. The front-of-house staff interacts with the customers and also with the back-of-house staff who often have to work in close proximity to one another. Coupled with the fact that many infected people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, restaurant staffs can do everything right and still be exposed to the virus, and it can happen over and over again.
January and February are typically the slowest time of the year for restaurants, so the coming weeks are sure to be a challenge. If one member of a staff becomes infected, everyone on staff who’s interacted with them needs to be tested. That can mean shutdowns. For restaurants, it’s not only a loss of income but a lot of product gone to waste.
However, restaurant workers are problems solvers. Alex Smith, chef and co-owner of The Fold, knows she can’t prevent her staff from getting sick, but she’s figured out a way to not have everyone exposed should another staff member test positive for the virus. She’s instituted a “pod system,” in which the staff has been split up into two separate working groups that will only be working with each other will not interact with the other half of the staff.
“This last closure brought to light again how important it was for us to minimize exposure to staff members as much as possible,” Smith said in an email. “If multiple people work every day then the chance of one staff member or one customer exposing the whole staff is inevitable. Having to fully close for possible or actual exposures is financially devastating for restaurants and their staff right now. It seemed like a logical next step to try to prevent that by putting into place a system that didn’t allow for as much cross contamination.”
Making a restaurant schedule can be difficult when the entire staff is available to work with each other. I’ve tried to make one and it didn’t work out. I asked Smith how difficult it was to make a schedule with the pod system in place.
“Because we have such a small team, it was hard to decide how to separate everyone into two different pods. We have done our best to not only to take into account everyone’s availability but their personalities and friendships amongst each other as well. Moving everyone to working alternating days on or off means that the shifts are all much longer in order to cover both lunch and dinner shifts every day. I think the longer shifts have been the hardest adjustment for everyone so far. The new system does make being short staffed for shifts much more likely and difficult to handle. Bart [Barlogie, co-owner] and I decided that we would be in separate pods to cover any gaps or at least to try and cover potential gaps. We’re wrapping up our first week of the new schedule and so far have only had one issue of being short staffed. I’d say we’re doing pretty good as far as restaurants are considered — ha ha.”
The Fold, like many restaurants, has taken multiple steps to adapt to the hardships brought on by the pandemic.
“Whether it’s takeout only, margarita kits, a tent in our parking lot, installing heaters, taking reservations. … We are extremely grateful to our customers for being patient with us as we’ve tried to figure it all out and continue to support us through everything. We’ve tried hard to be completely transparent with the public about decisions we’ve made over the past year. It’s important to us to make sure our customers and staff feel safe being at The Fold,” Smith said.