Over two dozen Atlanta restaurants recently announced temporary closures due to positive COVID-19 results among employees. The timing, with the beginning of a winter surge spurred on by the highly transmissible Omicron variant colliding with restaurants’ peak holiday dining season, couldn’t be worse for the businesses.
Empty dining rooms were supposed to be relics of the early days of the pandemic as the country and Georgia inch forward into a vaccinated (and boosted) future. Georgia currently sits at just over 50 percent of residents fully vaccinated. But, starting around December 15, numerous Atlanta restaurants, including Talat Market, 8ARM, Kimball House, Local Three, Ticonderoga Club, Banshee, Lazy Betty, A Mano, Lucian Books and Wine, and the Decatur location of Grindhouse Killer Burgers, shuttered to await COVID-19 test results from employees. A handful of restaurants experienced multiple positive cases among staff members and could remain closed through the Christmas weekend.
“It’s honestly the nightmare scenario we all feared back in March 2020, but had seemingly avoided until now,” 8ARM general manager Joshua Fryer says. “Before this outbreak, we only had a total of five employees test positive over the last two years, and only one person was ever symptomatic.”
The restaurant closed each time to allow staff to test.
While timeliness of test results has improved over the last year, Fryer says accuracy has been the biggest issue with this latest wave. In order to return to work, a negative PCR test is required by the restaurant. Most 8ARM employees use a testing center at the corner of Boulevard and Memorial which promises PCR results in 24 hours if tested before 11 a.m. Since it was late in the day when the restaurant was notified of its first positive case, most staff initially tested at home with varying results.
“Several employees tested negative on their PCR test, but positive with at-home tests,” says Fryer. “Some of our symptomatic staff tested negative on both PCR and at-home tests. We had several people test negative on PCR tests, some more than once, even though they were already symptomatic, only to later test positive.”
Since closing on December 16, almost half of 8ARM’s fully vaccinated employees have tested positive for the virus and are experiencing mild to moderate symptoms. Fryer says the speed at which the outbreak occurred at 8ARM caught everyone off guard.
The restaurant cancelled nearly 250 reservations and lost at least two to three times that number in potential walk-ins at the bar and the dining room in the days following the closure. 8ARM reopened on December 21, but with a very limited number of staff. In additions to masks, the restaurant also requires diners to now show proof of vaccination.
“For nearly two years now, we’ve all endured the ups and downs of this pandemic. I don’t think any of us were naive enough to think this pandemic was over, or that things were normal,” says Fryer. “Any extra profits we made in the glee of late spring and early summer have been decimated by the delta and now Omicron surges.”
In early November, when community spread in Atlanta was at its lowest point in months, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms relaxed the city’s indoor mask mandate. But, during a December 20 press conference, Bottoms said she was monitoring the surge in cases to determine whether to reinstate the mandate. Less than 24 hours later, Bottoms reinstated the city’s indoor mask mandate.
With her term ending in a week, it’s highly likely incoming Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens will opt to continue the city’s mask mandate until cases subside substantially. Dickens announced on December 20 on Twitter that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Today I tested positive for COVID-19 with a rapid test. I am feeling well and have mild symptoms. Please be smart about your holiday plans. Get tested. Wear masks. And get vaccinated. I’ll be back out in the city as soon as I can. Stay safe this holiday season! pic.twitter.com/SClRYb3pBl— Andre Dickens (@andreforatlanta) December 20, 2021
Chef Ron Hsu says since shutting down his Candler Park tasting-menu restaurant Lazy Betty December 18 due to positive COVID-19 results, they have cancelled nearly 200 reservations. An average tasting with wine pairings costs $250 per person. The shutdown comes as Hsu and Lazy Betty partner chef Aaron Phillips opened Vietnamese restaurant and bakery Juniper Cafe on December 15. It, too, closed on Saturday due to a positive test. Hsu and Phillips purchased 110 at-home tests at $14 per box (a total of $1540) for the restaurants’ 60 employees. Each box contains two tests.
“We were told that if you were vaccinated and you were boosted that your chances of catching COVID and spreading it were slim,” says Hsu. “This new variant has thrown us a massive curveball and now we’re just scrambling trying to figure out how to deal with it.”
Hsu says restaurants must again factor in the costs of COVID-19 mitigation measures, including PPE and rapid tests for staff.
“Then there’s the indirect cost of COVID, like brisket costs [which are] double the price than before the pandemic. Fryer oil went from $29 for a 5-gallon bucket to $45,” Hsu says. “This is on top of the masks, installing UV lights in AC systems, upgrading patios. Everyone’s doing something a little different. Those costs are passed on to the guests.”
Hsu says prices at Lazy Betty rose by three percent since the start of the pandemic to compensate for increasing operations costs, and a 20 percent service charge is now added to each check at Lazy Betty and Juniper Cafe to ensure each employee has a livable and reliable wage.
In addition to wearing masks, employees will be required to test before entering the restaurants until further notice. He and Phillips hope to reopen Lazy Betty and Juniper Cafe on December 22 if there’s enough staff testing negative to operate.
“As Omicron picked up steam, we returned to a masked policy for our staff,” Victory Brands co-owner Ian Jones tells Eater. “Unfortunately, at Little Trouble, we had a positive situation (of a fully vaccinated person) right at the ‘change-over’ of returning to masks.”
Like Hsu, Jones closed the group’s Westside Provisions District bar Little Trouble over the weekend due to a positive test result and to allow the rest of the staff time to get tested. Victory Brands also owns S.O.S Tiki Bar, Victory Sandwich Bar, and Lloyd’s.
“All bars and restaurants have extremely tight margins, and over the last two years many of those margins have become paper-thin to non-existent,” says Jones. “Any missed days are a big deal. As most of us are working for the weekend, being closed on a weekend day could account for 40 percent of your weekly sales — or 10 percent of your monthly. That 10 percent is often your only income.”
This rash of restaurant closures is leading to another wave in Atlanta — the number of food industry workers applying for financial aid and other assistance from nonprofit Giving Kitchen. An uptick in requests for COVID-19 aid began in early December.
“There’s no safety net left. There’s not another PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] on the way. Nothing,” says Giving Kitchen executive director Bryan Schroeder, who says restaurants and employees are buckling under the weight of the financial burdens of the past 18 months.
The average ask for assistance per month in 2020, whether financial or via the organization’s stability network program (finding housing, legal aid, mental health resources) was 152 people. In 2021, the average monthly ask almost doubled to 292. Schroeder says December already shattered the 2021 average, with 413 requests for help, 31 percent of which are COVID-19 related. Just in the last 10 days, Giving Kitchen received 56 requests for help due to the pandemic.
Schroeder expects requests to increase exponentially over the next two to three weeks as the financial and health-related effects of the restaurant closures begin taking a toll on the industry’s workforce.
Data gathered by Giving Kitchen since the beginning of the health crisis in 2020 also shows women in Atlanta’s restaurant industry are disproportionately impacted and twice as likely as men to request assistance from Giving Kitchen. Overall, women received 60 percent of all awards from the nonprofit and 65 percent of all funding.
Schroeder says this particular data really stood out and is likely due to the fact many women are the primary caretakers of a child or parent, especially during the pandemic.
These closures are coming at a time when the industry was set to recoup a portion of the revenue lost over 2021. Now the industry faces more uncertainty, and some fear continued shutdowns caused by the latest COVID-19 wave could force many restaurants to shutter permanently.
But, despite the surge in cases, vaccines are keeping their employees from developing more serious COVID-19 infections and avoiding hospitalization.
Fryer says 8ARM employees are staying connected via chat and keeping each other updated on friends in the industry, many of whom are also testing positive and facing temporary restaurant closures in Atlanta ahead of the holidays. Mostly, they’re helping one another cope with anxieties over the loss of income and fears surrounding possible long-term side effects of COVID-19.
“I’m not sure any of us expected this level of speed, intensity, and breadth this virus has taken hold within our community,” says Fryer. “It’s especially hurtful now, not just because of the loss of business, but because it will inevitably keep many of us from our families over the holidays, after already being separated during the holidays last year.”