Three restaurants in one of the Des Moines metro’s largest suburbs announced to the public this week that employees have tested positive for COVID-19, coinciding with the general reopening of bars and restaurants throughout the state of Iowa.
There is no mechanism or guideline that asks or requires businesses, including restaurants, to announce publicly that one or more of their employees tested positive for the virus, meaning each one of these restaurants alerted the public of their own volition, though each circumstance varied.
Local fluffy taco empire Tasty Tacos announced an employee had been “affected by” COVID-19 at their Ankeny location on May 26 and notified their Facebook followers that they would be closed for a week (Tasty Tacos did not respond to a request for comment).
Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant in Ankeny also announced an employee had been “affected by” COVID-19 on May 28. Like Tasty Tacos, Guadalajara closed for a week from their announcement. The restaurant also has a location in Altoona.
Whiskey River Ankeny informed its Facebook followers on May 26 that a staff member had been “affected by” COVID-19. The restaurant announced they would close for an unspecified amount of time. They also claim the staff member had been asymptomatic while working.
This statement only came after an employee leaked the news of Whiskey River Ankeny’s coronavirus-positive employee after another employee leaked it on her own personal Facebook page. Sydney Vail said in a now-deleted Facebook post urging anyone who had been to the restaurant since their dine-in reopening to isolate and get themselves tested for COVID-19, claiming that there were multiple symptomatic employees that were still working and had yet to be tested.
Vail said in a follow-up post that she agreed to delete the statement after Whiskey River Ankeny made their own statement. She confirmed to the Informer that the restaurant still employs her but will decline to schedule her for work shifts for an unknown period of time as they “aren’t comfortable with me knowing more information” about the handling of employees with COVID-19 at their restaurant.
Nicki Romare, owner of the Whiskey River Ankeny, Whiskey River Ames, and Founder’s Irish Pub in Bondurant, acknowledged that Vail had been removed from the restaurant’s work schedule following her leaking of the restaurant’s coronavirus positive employee, but claimed that a statement to alert Whiskey River Ankeny customers was in the works before the leak.
According to Romare, the employee was tested for COVID-19 on Sunday, May 24 but, due to the long Memorial Day weekend, did not receive her positive test until Tuesday, May 26, the day Vail leaked the information and the restaurant released their statement. Romare denied Vail’s original assertion that multiple symptomatic employees were still working at the restaurant as of May 26 and reiterated the claim made in the restaurant’s statement that no symptomatic employees had been working in the restaurant.
While Romare acknowledged that both Whiskey River Ankeny and Ames were busy over the holiday weekend, neither she nor the positive-testing employee know whether or not she contracted the virus while working at the restaurant. She said that though the restaurants were busy, social distancing and sanitation guidelines were followed.
When asked, Romare also acknowledged that a lack of clear guidelines from the state and other organizations leave restaurant owners like herself to make their own decisions about how to respond when an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
“You have to figure out what’s best for your employees, what’s best for your bank account, what’s best for your customers,” she said. “There’s so much to take into account, it’s not an easy decision. We had just opened the bar back up, we were following all the safety regulations. … We were trying to figure the situation out really quickly with a lot of different angles.”
Jessica Dunker, president of the Iowa Restaurant Association, acknowledged that restaurants are largely on their own when dealing with COVID-19 and said that each one must make the decision that’s best for them on a case-by-case basis when it comes to alerting the public about COVID-19 cases in their restaurant.
She also speculated that the week-long closures announced by Tasty Tacos and Guadalajara Mexican restaurant were purely to allow contact tracing, not because they would need that long to properly disinfect the restaurant.
When reached for comment, the Polk County Department of Health confirmed that they are contacting positive individuals in the county and doing contact tracing. They also confirmed that guidance for restaurants is “the same for any business/place that an employee tests positive.”