Two upper valley restaurants announce temporary closures after employees test positive for COVID-19
Meat and Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop announced Friday evening it is temporarily closing in response to one of its employees receiving a positive COVID-19 test result that morning.
According to Wendy Mitchell, owner of both Meat and Cheese and Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar, the employee came to work Wednesday, went through the restaurant’s daily temperature and health screening — which is part of its COVID-19 health and safety protocols — and self-reported symptoms including a sore throat, aches and pains.
Mitchell said the employee was directed to either go home and quarantine for 14 days or take a COVID-19 test. The employee decided to get tested Thursday and received the positive result Friday morning.
“The employee reported the test result to me and said someone from the county would call me,” Mitchell said. She went on to explain that she called the county’s testing phone number early Friday to try to get some more information on if she should close the restaurant or if other employees should quarantine, but was told to wait for a contact tracer to call her.
Mitchell said Meat and Cheese opened for lunch Friday and that a contact tracer called her around 2 p.m., informing her she did not have to close the restaurant.
However, Mitchell felt that for the safety of her employees and customers she should shutter the popular Aspen eatery and farm shop for a short time, sending out a news release about the closure just before 5 p.m. Friday.
“While we have been informed that we are not required to close our restaurant, in an abundance of caution we have decided to close for a short time for a massive deep cleaning and sanitation,” the news release said.
By 6 p.m., she had talked with a county contact tracer again and was informed she and another manager who had been in close contact with the employee needed to quarantine for 14 days, meaning Meat and Cheese would be closed for roughly 14 days as well.
“Without the two management positions we don’t have enough depth to keep things open,” Mitchell said. “But I feel like closing regardless is the right thing to do. … I’m not going to be the only one who is going to have to make these decisions and I feel like people have to go off of their own moral code. For me, this is my community and these are my friends … and I feel a sense of responsibility to close out of respect for them.”
Mitchell isn’t the only Roaring Fork Valley restaurant owner who has voluntarily chosen to close their business’s doors in response to an employee testing positive for COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Heather’s Savory Pies and Tapas Bar in Basalt made a similar move after Heather Lujan, the store co-owner the restaurant is named for, received a positive COVID-19 test result the evening before.
“We were floored that without having any major symptoms she was positive,” said Rene Lujan, the restaurant’s co-owner and Heather’s husband, during an interview Friday morning. He noted that Heather experienced some headaches, a slight cough and some achiness in her legs, which she just attributed to being on her feet all day. She got tested as a safety precaution.
“Who knows where this creeped in from, but all I know is that when something like this happens we’re not going to take it lightly and we’re not going to put the community at risk or my employees at risk. We just have to handle the situation.”
Heather received her positive test result Monday evening, Rene said. The couple informed their other 14 employees of the test result and posted a temporary closure sign on their door the next morning.
On Wednesday, the restaurant announced the temporary closure on its Facebook page, informing customers that in the best interest of everyone, “we decided the best and safest course of action was to suspend operations while the entire staff awaits test results,” the post says.
“I don’t want people putting the COVID-19 sign on our restaurant that leads us to lose customers. That’s why we’re being so transparent about this,” Rene said Friday. “I want people to know that we always follow the protocols in place, we sanitize constantly, we do what we’re supposed to do.”
Rene went on to say all restaurant employees have been quarantining and have been tested for COVID-19. As of Friday morning, three tests had come back negative, he said. Some of the Lujans’ friends who had been in close contact with Heather also have gotten tested.
According to a prepared statement from Eagle County’s public health director, Heath Harmon, individual COVID-19 case reports like Heather’s cannot be confirmed for confidentiality reasons. However, his statement said the county investigates all positive cases, usually within 24 hours, with two goals at the forefront: identify likely exposure and prevent spread by identifying and quarantining close contacts.
Pitkin County public health officials are following similar contact tracing guidelines and working toward similar goals through its “box it in” strategy, with people who test positive being required to isolate and county contact tracers going to work right away.
Karen Koenemann, public health director for Pitkin County, said via text message Friday that the county is currently working on the Meat and Cheese employee positive case investigation and contact tracing, and that “Meat and Cheese restaurant has done everything right.”
As of end of day Thursday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 63 COVID-19 cases for Pitkin County confirmed since the coronavirus outbreak started. Aspen has not seen a surge in new cases since the opening of restaurants and lodging, as previously reported.
Eagle County has reported 622 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the outbreak, with five pending test results.
ANOTHER HURDLE AMID the PANDEMIC
For the Lujans, this sudden closure of Heather’s Savory Pies and Tapas Bar is a devastating blow to their business, as the local Basalt spot known for its potpies and live music had just reopened for in-person dining shortly after it was allowed by Eagle County on May 25.
Before then, the restaurant was offering take-out only and probably wouldn’t have made it through without the PPP loan it received and continued community support, Rene said.
“During that take-out time a lot of (restaurant owners) opted to close because you don’t get rich off of doing take-out, but my outlook was, ‘Well, we’ve been a community restaurant and I’m going to stay open and figure this out for the community,’” Rene said.
“Then just when we’re reopening, just when our customers are coming back and we’ve got music happening and sunshine outside then we get a thunderstorm. It’s devastating and I don’t know if people realize how devastating it is.”
For Mitchell, the closure of Meat and Cheese is a similar blow. She said like Heather’s, the Aspen restaurant has been open for take-out and limited farm shop business since the COVID-19 outbreak under Pitkin County restrictions, and resumed in-person dining as soon as it could May 27.
But now that she is temporarily closing out of respect for her employees and customers, Mitchell said she “hasn’t even had a minute to think of how we’ll get through this.”
Mitchell hopes Meat and Cheese will reopen in roughly two weeks and Rene said Heather’s plans to reopen June 22, the day after Father’s Day.
Rene said the Basalt restaurant also plans to up its health and safety protocols in place, regardless of what the Eagle County public health guidelines allow.
Rene said that means requiring all restaurant staff to wear masks and implementing even more cleaning and disinfecting requirements than it already had in place due to COVID-19.
On Friday morning, Rene said Heather was doing pretty well and isolating in a bedroom at the couple’s home — though he acknowledged she was upset that she couldn’t cook and was having to put up with his bad cooking.
When asked how the Basalt area community has responded to the restaurant closure and Heather’s positive COVID-19 test result, Rene said there had been some game of telephone-like misinformation spread around, but that overall the community has been very supportive of the restaurant’s transparency and has wished Heather a speedy recovery.
“This is a pandemic happening around the world and in a sense it is a curse when you have to close your business, but it’s something you have to handle and that will pass,” Rene said. “We’re committed to cleanliness and we sanitize constantly, so I hope there won’t be a stigma placed on us when we do reopen. … We want everyone to feel safe and welcome at Heather’s.”
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