Po’ Boys and Pickles tried to do everything right.

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Portland sandwich shop took prevention seriously, and when vaccines were available, everyone on staff got the shot, owner Chris Bettera said. When cases rose this fall, employees put masks back on.

Despite those efforts, the coronavirus crept in. After an exposure last week, the majority of the staff tested positive for COVID-19, though none of them has symptoms, Bettera said.

“Omicron is that contagious,” he said, referring to the coronavirus variant on its way to becoming the dominant source of cases in Maine and throughout the United States.

In recent weeks, at least a dozen Portland restaurants and bars have temporarily closed because of COVID-19 infections and exposures among staff, according to public posts on social media.

No public health regulations require public-facing businesses to close if a staff member tests positive or is exposed. Under the newest recommendations from the U.S. CDC, unvaccinated people who are infected or exposed to the virus should quarantine at home for at least five days. Fully vaccinated and boosted workers who are exposed but not infected can come back to the job, but should wear a mask for 10 days.

But those recommendations don’t consider other business challenges. Some restaurants dealing with infections and exposures do not have enough workers to open safely. In other cases, concerns about the safety of staff and the public override the effect on the bottom line.

For Bettera, closing Po’ Boys and Pickles was not a case of over-caution or hysteria, but the responsible and practical thing to do from a public health and business standpoint. Closing means a week of lost sales at the slowest time of the year.

“If the majority of the team tests positive, that means we won’t have the staff to operate,” he said. “If we don’t have the staff to operate, we are not going to have customers come back and make sandwiches themselves.”

Generally, if one person in a workplace tests positive, it is not a reason to close, said Roslyn Stone, CEO of Zero Hour Health, a health crisis and management consulting company in Stamford, Connecticut, that works with big restaurant chains such as Texas Road House and the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.

But if a restaurant doesn’t have enough employees because they are out sick or were exposed and can’t get tested, it presents workplace safety issues. Overworked, understaffed kitchens can mean accidents or other contamination, such as norovirus or hepatitis A, Stone said.

“I think there is generally not a clinical reason to close, but there may be other reasons,” Stone said. “You don’t have enough staff, your staff are tired, frightened and having trouble getting tests. Sometimes it makes sense just to stand down for a few days.”

That scenario has become more common as omicron sweeps the country.

“We believe most restaurants are trying to do the right thing and are being held at a much higher standard than other businesses,” Stone said.

Corrinna Stum, co-owner of Ruby’s West End, writes, “We’re back” on a sign Friday to let customers know the restaurant is reopening. Ruby’s is opening Saturday after being closed for 16 days. The first week was a planned Christmas break, but after multiple staff members, and Stum and her husband, Matt, contracted COVID-19, they had to keep the restaurant closed much longer than anticipated. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Ruby’s West End, a breakfast and brunch restaurant in Portland, closed for a break over the winter holidays, but before it was ready to open in early January three staff members became infected with COVID-19, including owners Matt and Corrinna Stum.

“We had to close the restaurant because 50 percent of our team is three people – you can’t run a restaurant with three people,” Corrinna Stum said.

The restaurant was closed another five days and plans to reopen for brunch on Saturday, she said.

Health and safety is second nature for restaurant professionals, Stum said, so it should surprise no one that they take coronavirus seriously.

“It is in our DNA to be the most cautious and the most sanitary, we are handling food and drinks – things people touch and consume and interact with,” she said.

In at least one case, Portland restaurant workers demanded better COVID-related procedures from their employer. About seven workers walked off the job at Portland Pie Co. pizza restaurant in Portland this week to protest working conditions, including the company’s approach to coronavirus infections among the staff.

Employees accused the company of disregarding their concerns about recent COVID-19 infections and exposures among their co-workers.

Portland Pie Co. CEO Jeff Perkins, in a statement posted Friday, apologized for not listening enough to employees and said the company needed to improve.

“We need to communicate better to employees and customers so that they have the information to make their own decisions as to what is best for them regarding COVID-19,” Perkins said.

Line cooks Warren Caiazzo, left, and John Conley work in the kitchen Friday at DiMillo’s on the Water before dinner service. DiMillo’s has a staff of more than 100 and can backfill shifts if someone has to call in sick or quarantine. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

DiMillo’s on the Water, off Commercial Street in Portland, has had at least a dozen COVID-19 cases among staff in the last year, owner Steve DiMillo said.

But closing for every case isn’t a solution for the restaurant, he added. With more than 100 employees, it can backfill shifts if someone has to call out sick or quarantine. Employees who have been in close contact – within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more – are notified and required to get a test, he said.

The approach DiMillo’s takes when an employee tests positive has changed from the first year of the pandemic.

“We closed twice in 2020 at different points, but it is not the thing to do anymore. We are working around it if we have staff to do business,” DiMillo said. “A lot of people are like ‘I’m over COVID.’ If you close your business down because two people have COVID, well, that is going to happen again the week after next.”

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