The calls and messages through email and social media have been commonplace in recent months — to local health officials and even to local newspaper offices.
Fill in the blank: “XXXX major retailer had a positive COVID-19 employee and didn’t tell anyone,” or “XXXX restaurant had a positive COVID-19 employee and didn’t notify the public.”
Chances are, local public health officials already knew because they are separately notified when a person tests positive for COVID-19. In many cases, though, the business wasn’t required to notify the general public, although certain types of businesses and organizations have more strict notification requirements.
“If you’re regulated like a daycare, or a group home or a nursing home, there are requirements to report to public health and there are requirements to be transparent with your clients,” said Russell Hopkins, director of disease surveillance with the Northeast Texas Public Health District. “That has existed always.”
Barber shops and hair and nail salons, along with organizations hosting summer camps, also are among businesses with specific state requirements to notify customers, employees and contractors when COVID-19 exposures have occurred.
Restaurants are different, though. While there are requirements for reporting to local health authorities, there aren’t requirements for them to notify the general public if an employee working at the restaurant has been diagnosed with COVID-19. (These types of businesses also have been given direction for more cleaning and sanitizing procedures before and after a COVID-19 exposure, as well as procedures for implementing masking and social distancing.)
Otherwise, businesses have guidance and recommendations for how they respond when an employee tests positive for the coronavirus, but not necessarily specific mandates for telling employees and customers.
“There’s not any particular mandates, orders or health code to direct these businesses in how they respond,” Hopkins said. “We provide guidance and technical assistance in how to manage that if they have a case or if they believe there’s an exposure or if there’s a question of shutting down.”
NET Health, for example, does get a lot of questions from the business community.
“They want to know how to do contact tracing. There’s a misconception there — public health needs to do the actual contract tracing and what businesses can do is support that,” he said, including by following guidance that the governor’s office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies have provided for periodically taking employees’ temperatures and conducting employee health assessments.
Public health officials have been providing guidance on human resources issues, talking with businesses about whether they provide paid time off for illness and being open and transparent with employees.
“Our experience with jails and with food processors has been, the more transparent they are, the more they are allowing people off during their isolation time and encouraging them staying away from work, the more successful they were in stomping out any spread of COVID,” Hopkins said.
In Longview, there have been at least a couple of instances of a locally owned retailer and restaurant that took to social media to warn the public that they had temporarily closed because of either a potential COVID-19 exposure for someone who worked at the business or because an employee had tested positive for the virus. Those steps, though, aren’t typically required for restaurants or retailers.
Separately, people have reached out to the News-Journal on several occasions when they’ve heard rumors of positive COVID-19 cases in employees at major retailers who aren’t making public announcements when an employee has tested positive.
Local city and county health officials report they, too, are receiving calls, including about businesses they don’t regulate through the health permitting process.
“The Environmental Health Division has, since the beginning of the COVID protocols, been working with our permitted establishments (restaurants, schools, child care facilities, grocery stores, convenience stores and so on),” to make sure they are following the state’s criteria for operating through the COVID-19 pandemic, said Laura Hill, the city’s community services director. “Additional guidance has been received by many of our facilities from their corporate offices and other resources to guarantee the necessary changes are made to their operations.
“Second, if they do have a positive case, we are here to assist them in making sure they implement the necessary additional cleaning and disinfection protocols that will allow them to reopen in a timely manner. As mentioned above, some have corporate guidelines to follow so we verify those and for our locally owned establishments, we will review the steps they need to take to make sure they can resume operations as quickly as possible.”
Longview’s environmental health manager, Leisha Kidd-Brooks, also said there is limited potential for exposure from restaurant employees who end up being diagnosed with COVID-19. Most of the concerns are for employee-to-employee contact, she said.
The city’s environmental health division’s role is “primarily educational,” focused on providing safe environments for customers and employees, Hill said. Enforcement actions are possible if necessary, but Hill said that hasn’t been needed.
She noted, though, that positive restaurant cases “are not at all indicative of the facility’s food management practices or even hygiene,” Hill said.
“Our establishments are working diligently to implement new protocols and safety procedures due to the pandemic, but transmission of virus amongst humans is challenging as many workplaces are discovering,” she said.