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Some Kansas City Restaurants Closing Again After Employees Test Positive For Coronavirus

Laura Norris (front) with Ragazza staff in early March. Ragazza is closed until July 9 after three employees tested positive.

Throughout the pandemic, restaurants have carried the burden of public health and safety as well as the safety of their employees and their own bottom lines. Now they face a new round of closures as employees test positive.

To stay in business during the coronavirus pandemic, area restaurants retooled their models months ago, incorporating carry-out and to-go services. Those same places opened their dining rooms when municipalities gave the green light. Now, though, some are closing their doors, again — this time without carryout — after employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

All along, the onus has been on restaurants to protect their employees and the public from the virus. Some fear that might be an inappropriate amount of responsibility for one industry.

“The general public has proven through the last couple weeks that they just want to go out to eat. They don’t care. They just want to be out and about and resume whatever their normal life was,” chef Patrick Ryan says. “Just because places are open doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Ryan owns Port Fonda and says that from the beginning of the pandemic, he kept his eye on restaurants’ responses nationally to gauge what would be best for his team of 45. Port Fonda stayed closed completely until about three weeks ago, when he decided to try offering take-out and limited outdoor seating.

However, only two weeks in, one of Ryan’s cooks tested positive, and so Port Fonda shut down again. He doesn’t doubt for a moment that Port Fonda will reopen in the future, but he says he has no idea when that will be.

“Even opening again soon seems kind of ridiculous,” Ryan says. “The last thing I want to put my staff through or myself through is opening again just to have to close down again and have to restart the whole thing.”

Because he hasn’t had work for his staff, he knows that they’ve had to pick up hours elsewhere. Six of his cooks each had three other jobs at one point, so they were exposed to that many other people on a regular basis, not just to each other. And Ryan says he knows that those other employers weren’t enforcing distancing.

“It’s really hard to police people when they’re not in your building, and it’s unfair to tell people that they can’t go try to survive,” Ryan says.

Laura Norris, owner of Ragazza, says that she had three employees who tested positive. She shut down June 19 but plans to reopen on July 9.

Like the Port Fonda employees, hers didn’t contract the virus in-house.

Ragazza had been open for dine-in since June 2. “By following the CDC protocols, by following our health department protocols, we didn’t see spread within the restaurant, which I think is a super important thing for people to understand,” Norris says.

Of the three employees who tested positive, two lived together and shared childcare with the third.

Pitch food writer Liz Cook says, “I really wish that we had not shifted the burden of public health onto restaurants and asked them to make that impossible decision in terms of whether to stay afloat and protect the jobs of their employees, or close down and be as safe as possible in preventing the spread of the virus.”

She says she’s glad that Kansas City and nearby cities have made masks mandatory. The mandate supports front-of-the-house staff who deal with angry customers who don’t want to wear masks, but Cook says it’s still only a band-aid on an “enormous, bleeding wound.”

In April, as many as 8 million restaurant workers were jobless nationwide. When dining rooms reopened, about 1.4 million regained or found new work in the industry. But restaurants are beginning to close again — some because employees tested positive, others because the business can't survive, and still more because of fears that Fourth of July traffic that might further the spread.

“Service industry workers were struggling in normal times in a lot of ways, and these are people who disproportionately don’t have health insurance and are probably the least equipped to weather a COVID outbreak, and who probably have a less generous financial cushion when they lose their jobs,” Cook says.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition is pushing for action from Congress that would assist independently owned restaurants with a $120 billion revitalization fund, because “500,000 independent restaurants and 11 million jobs are on the brink of going away forever,” according to the Coalition’s website.

On July 1, Congress extended the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program to August 8. Both Norris and Ryan are enrolled in the PPP. Norris says she’s relying on it to avoid bankruptcy; however, she’s uncertain if she’ll be able to avoid paying back the government at the end of the extension.

Cook says, “Independent restaurants are really what makes the scene unique and gives it its character and vibrancy, so I’m extremely worried that we’re going to lose that big piece of what makes the KC dining scene unique.”

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