Restaurants Must Publicly Post COVID-19 Cases

By: Alan Pollock

Chatham seal.

Chatham First In Mass. With This Requirement

CHATHAM Though it’s not required by state law, Chatham restaurants reporting positive cases of COVID-19 among staff, patrons or vendors must now notify the public by placing announcements near entrances and by posting the information on their websites or social media accounts.

The emergency order passed by the board of health took effect last Thursday, and appears to be the only order of its kind issued by a Massachusetts community.

“All food service establishments shall notify the public of the incidence of any confirmed positive case(s) of COVID-19 among its employees and staff, patron, or vendor by physically posting, conspicuously at each entrance, a written notice thereof at the establishment, on the establishment’s website, and/or on social media,” the order reads. The notices must be posted immediately and remain in place for a minimum of 96 hours or until officials have finished tracing all of the close contacts of the infected person.

“All food service establishments shall close for a minimum of 24 hours and undertake a deep cleaning and disinfection in accordance with CDC guidelines prior to reopening” after restaurant management becomes aware of a confirmed case among employees, patrons or vendors, the order concludes.

Given confirmed cases at several Chatham restaurants over the summer, and with encouragement from the board of selectmen, the health board asked staff to draft an order that would ensure that the public receives official notice of COVID-19 cases involving restaurants. While this summer’s cases were quickly disclosed either by the restaurant owners, on social media or in the press, health board members said it is best for the information to come from an official source.

Board Chairman John Beckley said that in previous cases, including a cluster of seven cases at the Chatham Squire in late August, many people learned the news from an email blast from The Chronicle, “and they feel like they haven’t been fully informed by the town.”

Health board member Noble Hansen said posting a notice at the entrance to such restaurants “lets residents make their own decision” about whether to visit. Beckley said the order should specify where the notices are posted.

“Nobody should be able to go in that restaurant and walk in without seeing it,” he said.

Under state rules, restaurants are already required to notify the board of health in the town where the restaurant is located when an employee, patron or vendor tests positive for the novel coronavirus. In such cases, “is the town making any disclosure?” Hansen asked at the Oct. 5 board meeting.

With the new emergency order, “we’re putting the burden on the restaurant to do it,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. If the town were to publish the names of such restaurants on its own site, it will likely receive push-back from the chamber of commerce and other business leaders, he noted. “I’m not saying we can’t,” Duncanson said, but the town may draw fire for the move “because remember, this is going above and beyond what the state requires. No other community that we’re aware of in the Commonwealth has gone this direction.”

Beckley said the town could post the information on its own website in such a way as to stress that the restaurant is complying with the rules, “so that it reflects well on their response.”

“It’s not something we usually do if we have an issue at a restaurant,” Health Agent Judy Giorgio told the board. Town Counsel Patrick Costello was asked whether it would be advisable for the town to use its website to publicize names of restaurants with COVID-19 cases, and Costello said doing so is possible as long as the town doesn’t disclose the identity of the infected person.

Under the emergency order, the restaurant must post its notice for 96 hours or until contact tracing is complete. Town officials said the 96-hour time frame was somewhat arbitrary. Hansen suggested that the period of time be increased to a week to allow more time for contact tracing.

“Is that basically going to kill the business, until they [the notices] go down?” Beckley asked. Hansen said the notices aren’t closure orders, just informational postings.

“The resident makes the decision for themselves” whether to eat there, Hansen said.

The emergency order also clarifies the length of time that a restaurant must close once it becomes aware of a positive case. Before Oct. 5, the state indicated that restaurants must close for 24 hours and then perform a deep cleaning and sanitizing of the space before reopening, but that guidance now simply requires the cleaning and sanitizing, without specifying a time frame. The belief at the state level is that the 24-hour closure serves no particular purpose, Duncanson said.

So under the new rules, a restaurant could shut down for immediate cleaning and disinfecting “and be ready to reopen the next day,” Beckley noted.

“That’s basically what the Squire did the first time,” Giorgio said. Chatham Bars Inn followed a similar procedure when it had a positive test.

Hansen said for uniformity and to provide ample time for contact tracing, the 24-hour requirement makes sense. The restaurant should be allowed to perform the deep cleaning during or after the mandated closure, “but they must be closed for 24 hours,” he said. The rest of the board agreed on the requirement, which is now more restrictive than the state’s rules.

No restaurant owners or business leaders spoke during the health board’s discussion. Of several emails sent to restaurant owners seeking comment, Terri Mitchell of the Talkative Pig was the only one to reply. Mitchell said while the pandemic has created an unprecedented situation, “we do our very best to keep the public safe and cooperate with the town of Chatham rules, regulations and orders.”

At last week’s board meeting, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he supports the emergency order.

“I think it’s a good move by the board of health,” he said. While some restaurants might find the order onerous, it is prudent, Dykens said. He acknowledged the difficulty that small businesses face now.

“It’s especially tough for restaurants. But given the nature of our demographic, I think [the order is] a smart thing to do,” he said.