Tracing COVID’s spread in Detroit restaurants is an inexact science
This story was reported in partnership with Outlier Media, which operates an SMS-SMS service to share information about COVID-19 in Detroit.
While some Michigan restaurants continue to violate a state order temporarily prohibiting indoor eating, little public information is still available on how COVID-19 is spreading in the state’s restaurants.
While contact tracers are overwhelmed by the spread of the virus in almost every community, the limited data available paints an incomplete picture for workers and the public who are still looking for reliable ways to assess their risk.
The Wayne County Health Department doesn’t track individual COVID-19 cases in restaurants across the county because there are so many cases, said Michael McElrath, spokesman for the department.
“The case information does not come from institutions, but from individual cases,” said McElrath.
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He says the health department will make a public announcement if an outbreak is linked to a restaurant. There have been only two outbreaks since the pandemic began in Wayne County, the Crystal Gardens Banquet Center in Southgate and the Playhouse Club in Romulus in July.
According to state data, a COVID-19 outbreak is defined as two or more cases with likely shared exposure outside a household. The MDHHS data suggests that approximately 4% of the outbreaks were associated with restaurants. However, there is an important disclaimer in the data: “Many factors, including the inability to conduct effective contact tracing in certain environments, can result in significant underreporting of outbreaks … And the lack of identified outbreaks in any given environment does not provide any evidence that that this environment actually has no outbreaks. “
What the data fails to show is the inability of local health officials to conduct contact tracing efforts and possible under-reporting of COVID-19 cases. Some restaurant owners say there isn’t much guidance or support for them to follow up and report cases, and one owner says it shouldn’t be their responsibility to be a public health professional.
Restaurant suitcase numbers are sliding through cracks
In November, around 15 Detroit food operations reported COVID-19 cases, said Margaret Carroll, communications manager for the Detroit Health Department. The city of Detroit has its own health department and is excluded from Wayne County Health Department data.
“That number only applies to the food establishments that have reported cases to the department,” Carroll said. “The actual number may be higher.”
The Detroit Health Department does not disclose names of restaurants that violate government regulations.
In the event of a positive COVID-19 case, state occupational safety regulations require employers to immediately notify the local health department and notify any employees, contractors, or suppliers who may have come into contact with the person who tested positive.
If a restaurant reports a positive case to the department, an investigation will be conducted to confirm the case, Carroll said.
However, a Detroit restaurant owner who did not wish to be identified said when he reported a positive COVID-19 case from his restaurant to the Detroit Health Department earlier this fall, he was not asked for any records or the name of the employee who responded COVID was tested -19.
“As a business owner, my only connection with the health department is my inspector,” said the owner. “He said they had a different contact tracing department and someone would probably contact me, and that’s something that never happened.
“They never came to do an inspection or anything. What are you inspecting? It’s a virus that no one can see. But they never asked for a certified COVID clean or anything. “
The restaurant owner said restaurants currently have no answers or a lot of information.
“It’s just insane,” they said. “I’d rather we not even be open than operate and feel unsafe,” they said.
Workers say some managers are negligent
On the flip side, there have been several reports from Michigan restaurant workers that their managers are not taking the pandemic as seriously as they should be.
A former employee of Honest John’s Restaurant in Detroit said staff were not alerted when a worker tested positive for COVID-19 in September.
“The shitty part was that (management) didn’t tell any employee about it, made a public statement, or did anything like that,” he said.
The former employee said he took it upon himself to let the rest of the staff know that his employee tested positive.
The Detroit Health Department declined to comment on whether or not the restaurant reported the employee’s positive case.
One of the restaurant owners, Dave Kwiatkowski, said the worker tested positive after not working for a week.
“(The worker) had no interaction with anyone,” said Kwiatkowski. “The health department told us that if someone had worked with you 72 hours beforehand, they should be notified.”
For safety reasons, the former employee was quarantined for a week after a COVID-19 test, but returned to work before he had the results because he needed the money.
“Honestly, I kind of felt (awful),” he said. “I didn’t know what my test results were, but I didn’t want to lose my job either. Of course, money is tight for everyone right now, but I felt bad because what if I tested positive? “
The test result was negative.
“I told my manager that I shouldn’t work, I haven’t had any test results and he said, ‘No, it’s okay, you always wear a mask, I’ll make sure everyone wears a mask. ‘” he said.
He lost his job at the end of September and has been unemployed ever since. He says he hasn’t looked for other jobs and won’t do so until COVID-19 cases have dropped significantly.
“I just think this is the safest situation right now,” he said.
Prior to the indoor restaurant’s recent closure, Kwiatkowski said he had tracked customers’ names for traceability purposes, as did the anonymous restaurant owner in Detroit.
The restaurant owner said contact tracing should not be the responsibility of restaurants and businesses.
“Yes, we can track all the names that come in, but what does someone who doesn’t handle this data do then?” They said. “(Local officials) don’t even take the name of an employee who was positive, and no one has asked her where she works or lists the 15 people she saw in seven days.”
McElrath of the Wayne County Health Department said they did not access any of the restaurant lists for follow up contacts.
Lynn Sutfin, MDHHS information officer, said restaurant lists allow local health departments and restaurants to be more targeted but this contact tracing strategy will become less effective as COVID-19 spreads across the community.
“As the number of cases continued to grow, it has become more and more difficult to keep up with the contact tracing,” said Sutfin.
Mark Kurlyandchik of the Free Press contributed to this report.
Malak Silmi is the Arab reporter for information needs at Outlier Media.