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How Austin’s Restaurant Industry Is Taking Precautions Against Coronavirus

Local food and drink establishments are increasing the number of cleanings and adding paid sick leave policies, among other approaches

Swift’s Attic
Swift’s Attic
Swift’s Attic [Official]
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

In light of the global novel coronavirus pandemic, Austin restaurants are taking as many precautions as possible in order to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Now there are six presumptive positive COVID-19 cases in Austin/Travis County so far. Currently, the risk level for the virus is considered elevated in Texas, according to Austin Public Health (APH).

On top of what is already required by APH, local health and drink establishments have been taking additional steps in order to help ensure the safety of their customers and staffers. This includes scheduling additional cleanings of dining/kitchen/bathroom spaces and regularly and heavily cleaning surfaces such as seats, tables, and doors. Other venues have taken specific additional measures, such as adding extra hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations at Radio Coffee, posting safety flyers at Black Star Co-op, and installing hands-free paper towel dispensers at Salt & Time.

El Chilito nixed its self-serve salsa stations as a precaution. Likewise, Veracruz All Natural replaced its self-serve salsa bottles and buckets with already-filled miniature containers. Nitxa Taqueria co-owner Sara Mardanbigi has even noticed that guests are bringing their own hand sanitizers into the restaurant. Peached Tortilla/Bar Peached employees are being asked to use antibacterial sanitizing wipes on their phones before service begins. Dolce Neve nixed gelato samples and is serving drinks and affogatos to-go.

Casual operations, like coffee mini-chain Epoch and South Congress hotel cafe Manana, have stopped allowing customers to bring in their own reusable mugs for coffee. Greater Goods Coffee is only using to-go cups for now.

Epoch Coffee put up a cute comic encouraging general hygiene by illustrator NE Hensley
Epoch Coffee put up a cute comic encouraging general hygiene by illustrator NE Hensley
Epoch Coffee [Official]

APH recommends those exhibiting potential symptoms of the disease should stay home, which is easier said than done for service industry employees, especially in Texas, which doesn’t require employers to offer paid sick leave.

“This is a great time to talk about paid sick leave,” said Adam Orman. The co-owner and manager of L’Oca d’Oro (which offers paid sick leave) has been vocal about his support of the policy in Austin, which he believes “is in the interest of public health and also the interest of our industry.”

Without guaranteed income, service industry workers tend to work if they’re sick, even in the face of a health crisis, such as this. “If folks knew that our employees were paid a proper wage and paid to stay home when they’re sick, there would be a lot more confidence that going out wasn’t an assault on your personal hygiene,” Orman said.

As a result of the outbreak, Texas French Bread owner Murph Willcott is adding a paid sick leave policy. “I’ve decided we can’t wait,” he said. “We need to act immediately, regardless of the expense.”

Likewise, Garbo’s is doubling the number of paid sick days afforded to its employees from seven to 14 during this period, owner Heidi Garbo tells Eater. While Veracruz workers are hourly, a rep for the restaurant told Eater they’re considering offering bonuses to potentially sick staffers who remain at home.

Certain restaurants that don’t currently offer paid sick leave are being understanding due to the circumstances. Salt & Time will offer assistance to those who need to stay at home for an extended amount of time. Taco truck Discada already offers one work week of paid-time-off, but it will be flexible with this policy during this time. Previously, when employees of (Kome, Ni-Kome, Daruma, and Sa-Ten have been sick for a long period of time, the restaurant group helped assist financially.

If more than two employees of Foreign & Domestic are sick at the same time, co-owner and chef Sarah Heard says she will consider limiting reservations or closing down a section of the dining room.

South Austin brewery St. Elmo is even screening the temperatures of its employees before shifts begin.

A restaurant dining room and bar.
L’Oca d’Oro
Robert Lerma/Eater Austin

In order to share best safety practices regarding the spread of novel coronavirus, The Chameleon Hospitality restaurateur Stuart Thomajan put together a last-minute information session. Local restaurant and bar owners and managers gathered at Swift’s Attic to learn more about best practices to minimize the spread of the virus with Doctor Thomas Herold of the Austin Emergency Center earlier this week.

The goal of the session was to share “what are we all doing individually, that is going to help us weather stave off protect ourselves, our teams and our customers from what is undoubtedly coming,” prefaced Chameleon COO Ben Fordham. Dr. Herold talked about the basics: hand-washing, not touching faces, the regular cleaning of surfaces, allowing sick employees to stay home.

Inspired by the session, all three Chameleon Group restaurants — Swift’s, Wu Chow, Rosedale Kitchen — will implement ultraviolet light sterilization trays for pens used by guests and staffers, among other precautions. In order to make sure other restaurants are aware of this information, he will start a Facebook group to decimate these best practices with other industry service people.

Relatedly, Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster for the city last week because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Several days later, the city banned mass gatherings of 2,500 people or more through the end of April, which is one of Austin’s busiest event months. So far, the biggest effect of the novel coronavirus has been the cancellation of the city’s international festival South by Southwest last week.

The novel coronavirus situation is ongoing. If you know of other restaurants implementing specific preventative measures, let Eater Austin know via or through the tipline.

Update, March 13, 10:08 a.m.: This article has been included to add that there have been two presumptive positive coronavirus cases in Austin as of today.