On June 17, Jennifer Moreau received a text that said Senate Blue Ash, the suburban Cincinnati restaurant where she worked as a cook, would be closed the following day. All employees would be required to get tested for the coronavirus on their day off, the owner and executive team wrote. According to the restaurant, a line cook had just tested positive.
“Obviously discretions [sic] is key so please refrain from related posts on social media, as it would affect all of our livelihoods,” the text explained, according to a screen shot Moreau shared with The Washington Post.
Moreau dutifully got tested but didn’t visit the recommended clinic. She found one closer to her home. Moreau thought it also provided same-day results. It didn’t. Executive chef Leroy Ansley, who declined to comment for this story, was not happy. He exchanged texts with Moreau, which she shared with The Post, indicating that her decision had put him in a bind, as the restaurant reopened on June 19 with less than half its kitchen staff. Ansley even sent Moreau a photo of chef and co-owner Daniel Wright in a black mask.
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“I have to have Dan come in and peel potatoes,” Ansley texted. “It is what it is.”
Moreau, 49, never returned to Senate Blue Ash.
She had reasons, starting with her son, Alex Allen, who was a cook at a sister restaurant and who tested positive for the coronavirus on June 23. Even though she tested negative, Moreau was required to quarantine for two weeks because she lives in the same house with her son. But Moreau was also put off by the way Queen City Hospitality Group, the parent of Senate Blue Ash, handled the situation. She didn’t like the social media blackout on the restaurant’s positive employee. She worried, too, the workplace wasn’t safe after a 24-hour shutdown and a round of rapid-response tests, which have a 20 percent false-negative rate. She, after all, has elderly parents, including her mom, who already had contracted the virus.
“Our customers have the right to know that the people serving their food have been exposed to covid,” said Moreau, who contacted Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group for hospitality workers, and filed a complaint against Queen City with the National Labor Relations Board.
“It’s highly likely that some of them that tested negative were actually positive, which made me even more afraid to go back to work,” added Moreau, who worked next to the cook who tested positive. “None of these tests are 100 percent.”
Senate Blue Ash restaurant. (Amy Powell for The Washington Post)
Wright, the co-owner of Queen City, denies the accusations and says his company is “doing everything that we can to keep our restaurants safe.” He instead points a finger at Moreau. He alleges she has been drumming up charges, and faking a coronavirus-positive result, just to collect the extra $600 a week in unemployment, back when it was still available. “Some people just don’t want to work,” he said.
Across the country, many hospitality workers are afraid to work right now in an industry that’s fighting for survival with limited resources, conflicting reopening guidance from government and a significant portion of the population that continues to think the coronavirus is no worse than the seasonal flu. The reopening of restaurants, as Moreau’s example shows, has also further frayed the already-fraught relationship between worker and employer.
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Workers’ fears are as individual as their situations. Some have loved ones who are immune-compromised, and they can’t risk bringing the virus home. Some have their own health issues that make them vulnerable. Some work in a part of the country where people don’t believe in wearing masks. Some worry their employers are not taking the pandemic seriously. Some have to interact with tourists who may be traveling from hot spots.
Some also have enough savings to try to ride out the pandemic without stepping back into restaurants and bars. But some, such as Lena Schlegelmilch, don’t have that luxury. The jobs that offer the flexibility that Schlegelmilch needs — the 20-year-old is a junior at the University of Nebraska at Kearney — are mostly in the restaurant industry, so she continues to work as a server, cook and bartender at Thunderhead Brewing, where her father, Jamie, is general manager.
Since June 22, Gov. Pete Ricketts has allowed most Nebraska restaurants to operate at 100 percent capacity. The Republican governor has also encouraged, but not mandated, mask-wearing among residents. At Thunderhead Brewing, Schlegelmilch said, only about 10 percent of her customers wear masks at any time in the restaurant, creating many more opportunities every shift for the virus to pass from patron to staff. Those who don’t wear a mask will sometimes mock her when she does. They’ll say she’s wearing a “face condom” or explain that “it doesn’t protect you as much as you think that it should,” she said.
“I used to talk back,” Schlegelmilch said, “but I have to make money somehow, so usually I just stay silent, because if you piss them off enough they’re not going to tip you.”
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Schlegelmilch has not only stopped talking back. She has also stopped wearing a mask. Her decision has led to some direct benefits. She made $30 or $40 a night in tips while wearing a mask, and it’s now “over $100 in tips every shift,” she said.
Thunderhead recommends employees wear masks and has coverings available for staff, but they’re not required, said Jamie Schlegelmilch, the GM. “It’s just basically up to the customer” to wear a mask, he added. “The best thing we can do is encourage them and hope it will be okay.”
Yolanda Scott, a server at the Coffee Shop at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. (Joe Buglewicz for The Washington Post)
Megan Lombardi, 20, can identify with Lena Schlegelmilch. She’s a server at the Foggy Bottom location of Duke’s Grocery, a small chain of neighborhood pubs in Washington. To save money, Lombardi said, the restaurant cut the hostess who usually would greet customers and remind them about the city’s policy requiring them to wear masks except when they’re eating or drinking. Without that line of defense, Lombardi spends part of her shift reminding customers to mask up. Some don’t listen, such as the table of five who vaped inside and ignored her request to don masks when leaving. Her tip on their $75 tab? Zero. A woman from Florida, without a mask, got in Lombardi’s face and mocked her to fellow patrons. Her party left a few singles on a $120 check.
With the bad tips and the lack of customers, Lombardi figures she’s making about minimum wage, down from the $30 an hour she used to count on to make rent. Duke’s Grocery owner Daniel Kramer declined to comment when asked about Lombardi’s complaints.
Yolanda Scott, 51, is a member of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 98 percent of the servers, cooks, bartenders, room attendants and others who work on the strip in Las Vegas. Scott has worked as a server at Treasure Island since the casino opened in 1993. When Treasure Island reopened in June, Scott was back on familiar turf in the Coffee Shop, but under unfamiliar circumstances. The new mandated distance between tables has been hell on her arthritis.
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But her bigger problem is the customers, most of whom are tourists. Scott serves between 50 and 80 people a day, she said, and none wear masks. Scott said they should put them on while interacting with her, not just for her well-being but for those who share her home. Her partner, Scott said, has a bad kidney and heart, and she is “very nervous” about bringing the virus home from diners who might be visiting Las Vegas from a hot spot.
“You don’t know where people are coming from,” Scott said.
Her customers’ behavior places the burden on Scott to keep her partner and two children safe. She has developed protocols when returning from work. Before greeting anyone, “I take my shoes off at the door and then I go straight to the restroom and remove my clothing and shower.” She stuffs her work clothes in a bag to have them cleaned at the casino.
“We require all our guests and employees to wear masks unless eating and drinking,” a casino spokesperson said in a statement. “TI employees, including managers, waitstaff and bussers, are tasked with reminding guests to follow procedure for the safety of everyone on property. We take the security of our employees and guests very seriously.”
Chef William Morris at Cherry in 2019. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)
William Morris, 47, hasn’t worked in professional kitchens since March 9. He misses, and fears, them. He has been cooking at restaurants for more than 25 years, including stints as head chef at Vermilion in Alexandria and Cherry, the restaurant inside the W Hotel in downtown Washington. But as a cancer survivor, he’s vigilant about his health and the conditions that may impact it. His mother, Jewelyn, recently died of covid-19, the disease the virus causes. She went quickly, Morris said. He didn’t get to say goodbye.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, starting to choke up. “My mom was my world. She was my everything.”
Morris’s concerns are compounded by what he knows about kitchens. They’re built for efficiency, not to protect workers from a virus. Kitchens are often compact, designed to limit the number of steps for the cooks who work the line. They’re often hot, too, the kind of place where few would want to wear a mask for prolonged periods. Workers will show up even when ill, Morris adds, usually because they don’t have sick leave or can’t afford the time off.
“You think about the amount of line cooks that are working two jobs,” Morris said. “You could be very safe in one restaurant and taking every precaution. But is everybody at all the restaurants going to be the same way?”
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In Cincinnati, the case of the Senate Blue Ash employee who tested positive for the coronavirus was never reported to Hamilton County Public Health, as required, said Mike Samet, public information officer for the department. The notification of a positive rapid test would have initiated contact tracing by the department, Samet said, but the restaurant would not have been required to shut down or to test employees.
“There are a lot of questions about that rapid test right now,” Samet said. Many of those questions were generated after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) tested positive following a rapid-response test, only to learn he didn’t have the virus when administered the more accurate polymerase chain reaction test. Hamilton County has not mandated which test to use, Samet said.
Moreau, 49, has not returned to her job at Senate Blue Ash. (Amy Powell for The Washington Post)
Wright, co-owner of Senate Blue Ash’s parent company, said Queen City Hospitality is testing all 150 employees monthly, or more frequently, at a cost of thousands of dollars per round. It’s “incredibly offensive that I even have to answer this stuff, given the things that restaurants are going through right now and the levels that we are actually putting forward in order to keep people safe,” Wright said to The Post. “We did call the health department. Why they don’t have a record, I don’t know.”
Queen City Hospitality, Wright said, never told employees they couldn’t say anything about the coronavirus-positive cook at Senate Blue Ash. Wright sent The Post a new text — not a screen shot of the original — that he said was the approved message forwarded to all 60-something Senate Blue Ash employees on June 17. It did not include two sentences in the text screen shot that Moreau had forwarded, including the line that asked employees to refrain from related posts on social media.
When The Post forwarded the text screen shot from Moreau, Wright responded, “I’m honestly done explaining things.”
Wright said Queen City had alerted the public about the sick employee at Senate Blue Ash, though there were no mentions on the restaurant’s Facebook or Twitter accounts. Nor did Wright say anything on his personal Facebook page, but on June 23, four days after Senate Blue Ash reopened after testing all employees, Wright wrote a lengthy Facebook post about an employee who “likely tested positive” at sister restaurant Pontiac in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The employee was Allen, Moreau’s son, a cook at Pontiac before he was recently fired for making what Wright said were “transphobic” comments on social media. (Allen confirms the reasons for his termination.)
Some media outlets in Cincinnati wrote stories based on Wright’s Facebook post, which the owner pointed to as evidence that the public was notified about Senate Blue Ash. But none of the stories found by The Post mentioned a sick employee at Senate Blue Ash.
Moreau disputes Wright’s characterization of her motives. Moreau said she has been in recovery from heroin addiction for almost six years, a constant self-monitoring process that includes a brutal honesty to “keep my end of the street clean.” Even though she tested negative, Moreau stayed away from work because she continued to have symptoms, during which time she collected unemployment for five weeks before starting a new job Tuesday at a hotel restaurant.
“I’m the last person that anybody would ever describe as a disgruntled worker. Work was my happy place. I loved my job,” Moreau said.
“My customers are more important,” Moreau added. “If we had to close down, we all could have got unemployment. We didn’t have to lie to the customers and put them at risk. That was wrong.”
Emily Heil contributed to this report.
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