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Your employee tested positive for COVID-19. Now what?

Your employee tested positive for COVID-19. Now what?

The National Restaurant Association


The Association’s Restaurant Law Center offers guidance on what to do next


Restaurateurs operating during this pandemic face multiple challenges, but few are more important than what they do when an employee tests positive for the coronavirus.

With little official guidance available, operators are relying on information from a variety of sources as well as their instincts to protect their customers, employees and businesses.

Many are likely unsure of whether to temporarily close their restaurants or stay open, and when/if to notify the health department and/or public when confronted with a sick employee. While transparency typically is the best way to handle the situation, it’s critical for every restaurant to follow all local and state codes or regulations where they exist.

In April, when Chef Amy Brandwein, owner of Washington, D.C.-based Centrolina and Piccolina restaurants found out one of her kitchen employees was sick with the virus, she immediately consulted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, notified the rest of her staff, and contacted her local department of health.

She told Washingtonian magazine she messaged her customers on social media and in an email blast, explaining the situation and that she was suspending all service, including takeout and delivery, for a two-week quarantine. She had the space deep-cleaned and sanitized.

Brandwein says notifying the health officials and the public was a no-brainer even though she didn’t have to. While closing may feel like the safest decision for some, for others it could mean the difference between surviving and not.

Importantly, the CDC has indicated that restaurants and other businesses “in most cases” do not need to shut down when an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

Restaurateurs wondering what to do when an employee says he or she is sick or exposed should err on the side of caution, says Larry Lynch, the National Restaurant Association’s senior vice president of Certification & Operations.

“If the sick employee comes into work, send them home immediately — before they come into contact with anyone — and have them see a doctor,” he says. “If they’re sick enough to get tested and it comes back positive, contact your local health department to help them do a contact trace to minimize the risk of the employee’s exposure to others.”

Lynch also notes that restaurants, bars and other hospitality establishments will inevitably experience at least one or more of their employees testing positive for COVID-19. He advises them to take immediate action, while showing concern for the employee at the same time.

For what comes next, the Association’s Restaurant Law Center has outlined seven steps to follow.

  1. Addressing employees who are sick

Make sure that employees know they should not come to work if they are sick and should notify their manager or other designated COVID-19 point of contact. If an employee becomes sick while at work with COVID-19 symptoms, tests positive for COVID-19, or has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms (fever, headache, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath), the employee should notify his or her supervisor or other designated COVID-19 point of contact.

  1. What to do when employees at work present COVID-19 symptoms

Immediately separate employees who have COVID-19 symptoms. Sick individuals should go home or to a health-care facility, depending on how severe their symptoms are, and follow CDC guidance for caring for oneself and others who are sick. Employees should not return to work until they meet the criteria — in consultation with their health-care provider — to discontinue home isolation.

  1. What to do with asymptomatic COVID-19-exposed employees

Critical Infrastructure employees who’ve been exposed but remain asymptomatic could be asked to stay home for 14 days from the last exposure, or they may be allowed to return to work following these precautions:

  • A designee takes the employee’s temperature and assesses symptoms prior to starting each shift
  • The employee self-monitors throughout the day, on alert for symptoms
  • The employee wears a face mask while in the workplace and washes hands often
  • The employee practices social distancing and maintains a 6-foot separation as work duties permit
  • The operation increases the frequency of cleaning commonly touched surfaces
  • If the employee becomes sick during the day, he or she is immediately sent home
  1. How to begin contact-tracing employees exposed to COVID-19

Contact trace within your operation to determine potential exposure. You can ask a COVID-19-positive employee which coworkers he or she was in “close contact” with (within six feet for more than 15 minutes) during the prior two weeks, or check shift schedules.

  1. Notify health officials and close contacts when an employee tests positive

In accordance with state and local laws, operators should notify local health officials and staff of any case of COVID-19 among employees, while maintaining confidentiality in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Advise those who have had close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 to stay home, self-monitor for symptoms, and follow CDC guidance if symptoms develop. As critical infrastructure, you may also allow COVID-19 exposed asymptomatic employees to return to work with the precautions outlined above. They are also in the CDC Guidance for Critical Infrastructure Workers.

  1. Cleaning and disinfecting the area

Close off areas used by a sick person and do not use those areas until after cleaning and disinfecting them.

Wait at least 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting. If 24 hours isn’t feasible, wait as long as possible. Ensure safe, correct use and storage of cleaning and disinfection products.

  1. Permitting the return to work

You may ask for a “fitness for duty/return to work” medical clearance note prior to a sick employee returning for work. Some jurisdictions, such as New York, do not allow employers to ask for such notes from asymptomatic employees.

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. The public will be forgiving if an operator shows he or she handled the situation properly, followed all protocols, and that the restaurant environment is safe.

For a shareable link to the Restaurant Law Center’s guidance material, click here.