CDC Restaurant Study: Miami Restaurants Adapt to COVID-19

Torri Donley

When the managers at All Day cafe convened for their weekly meeting on March 11, co-owner Camila Ramos could sense that major changes were afoot in the food-and-beverage industry. Although it was 24 hours before the mayor of Miami-Dade County declared a state of emergency, Ramos and her team began […]

When the managers at All Day cafe convened for their weekly meeting on March 11, co-owner Camila Ramos could sense that major changes were afoot in the food-and-beverage industry. Although it was 24 hours before the mayor of Miami-Dade County declared a state of emergency, Ramos and her team began hatching plans for what to do if cases of the coronavirus started to spread locally.

“We met with the managers and said, ‘Hey guys, you know it hasn’t hit us yet, but it’s only a matter of time,'” Ramos remembers.

That day, the downtown coffee shop made arrangements to transition to disposable utensils, implement an hourly sanitation schedule, and issue gloves to all employees. Later that night, officials announced the first case of COVID-19 in Miami-Dade County.

That was six months ago. In that time, restaurants like All Day have faced one challenge after another as state and local officials put a halt to on-premises dining in mid-March and implemented a countywide curfew. Indoor and outdoor dining resumed in mid-May, but after a surge in cases, indoor dining rooms were shuttered in early July, leaving outdoor dining as the only option during the hottest months of the year. At the end of August, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez lifted the ban on indoor dining, allowing restaurants to again reopen their dining rooms at 50 percent capacity.

Last week, the industry was jolted by yet another seismic development when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study showing that, among 314 adults surveyed, those who tested positive for COVID were about twice as likely to have gone to a restaurant compared with those who tested negative. There was no similar finding for people who had gone to a gym, attended religious services, or used public transportation.

Restaurant lobbying groups immediately cried foul, issuing statements questioning the study’s methodology and arguing that the findings could be misinterpreted by the public.

“The study was not conducted in Florida and irresponsibly seeks to blame dining out with COVID-19 positive cases in other states while not attributing or disclosing other consumer behavior prior to testing positive,” the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association complained in a statement.

Although the CDC study did not ask restaurantgoers whether they ate indoors or outdoors, the agency concluded that eating at a table inside a restaurant is riskier than choosing a seat outside, especially if the tables are separated by less than six feet.

Public-health experts continue to urge caution when it comes to dining indoors.

“I think it’s probably one of the riskiest behaviors you can engage in if you’re trying to avoid getting COVID,” says Kathleen Sposato, senior director of infection prevention at Miami’s Jackson Health System. “If you’re in a restaurant, normally you’re with somebody, you’re talking, and your mask is off because you can’t access food or drink if your mask is in place. It’s just the perfect storm.”

Sposato compares eating inside a restaurant to riding a motorcycle without a helmet: “It’s unnecessary risk-taking.” She says she won’t be dining in until she can get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Sposato compares eating inside a restaurant to riding a motorcycle without a helmet: “It’s unnecessary risk-taking.”

Like Sposato, Dr. Terry Adirim, who is senior associate dean for clinical affairs at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Medicine, says she is avoiding restaurant dining rooms and ordering takeout instead.

“To walk indoors for two minutes is much less of a risk than sitting and eating for an hour, hour and a half,” she says. “I just won’t do it. Nobody I know who’s a public-health expert or physician will do it.”

One case that’s received widespread attention is that of a family who left Wuhan and ate lunch inside a restaurant in a nearby city in China back in January. One member of the family who unknowingly had COVID appears to have spread the virus to nine other people at the restaurant, whose air-conditioning system blew in the direction of other diners seated near the family.

Camila Ramos, the co-owner of All Day, says she read a New York Times story about that case and took it into account when she and co-owner Chris MacLeod decided to stick to outdoor service and not reopen indoor seating. As the coffee shop explained on Instagram, the air-conditioning system at All Day blows directly at the bar and kitchen, presenting a potential danger to employees.

“Once indoor dining opened, it felt totally wrong,” Ramos tells New Times. “I was like, there’s no way I’m opening up inside.”

All Day's outdoor setup.

All Day’s outdoor setup.

Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg

In July, the team at All Day had a close call when an employee’s girlfriend tested positive for COVID. Ramos and MacLeod closed the shop and instructed all employees to get tested. Fortunately, the results came back negative for every member of the ten-person team, including the worker whose girlfriend had tested positive. A week later, All Day reopened with a new protocol that called for employees to be tested every ten days.

So far, Ramos says, no team member has tested positive for COVID, which she takes as an affirmation of the shop’s safety precautions. “If the CDC is saying people have gone to restaurants who are infected and we’re a restaurant… it shows me that although I know statistically you can’t completely eliminate your chance of transmission, the measures we’ve put in place have done a pretty good job of minimizing the risk of infection,” she says.

All Day isn’t the only local restaurant that has chosen not to reopen for indoor service. El Bagel, which began as a food truck and opened its brick-and-mortar location in Miami’s Upper Eastside in early March, intends to continue operating with its online ordering and pickup system.

“I fucking loved having the shop packed out, it was like a bagel house party, but the only way to process this volume of orders safely is through our online site, where we can space out orders and reduce human contact,” owner Matteson Koche posted on Instagram, noting how packed the space got when El Bagel first opened.

Other restaurants are reopening on their own terms. Macchialina, a South Beach restaurant known for its pasta specials, recently announced that it will resume indoor dining service on September 29 — but only for one table per night.

Eddie Acevedo, chief operating officer of Grove Bay Hospitality Group

Eddie Acevedo, chief operating officer of Grove Bay Hospitality Group

Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg

Although Miami-Dade has a laundry list of requirements for restaurants that choose to reopen, some are implementing safety measures that go far beyond what the county mandates. Stiltsville Fish Bar in Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour neighborhood, for example, was recently retrofitted with a hospital-grade air purifier after the owners consulted with the Pompano Beach company ScientificAir.

“Most restaurants probably aren’t able to do that, but through our contacts and relationships we were able to secure this, and we’re very, very thankful we are able to have that,” says Eddie Acevedo, chief operating officer of Grove Bay Hospitality Group, which owns Stiltsville along with Red Rooster, Root & Bone, Stubborn Seed, and a handful of other Miami-area restaurants.

Diners at Grove Bay’s restaurants now access menus via a QR code on the table, and servers have been trained to eliminate needless trips back and forth to the tables. Common practices, such as having servers recite dinner specials, have been adapted to the COVID era.

“We realized that people were not ordering the specials because they can’t understand their server because they’re wearing a mask,” Acevedo says. “People don’t want to be rude and be in that situation of having to ask their server to repeat what they said.” Now, the specials are highlighted on the digital menu instead.

Grove Bay also created a new position for “roving sanitizers” who trail behind diners to disinfect doorknobs, handrails, and other surfaces that have been touched. Acevedo says most diners have been compliant with the countywide mask order, but the curfew, which until recently was 10 p.m., presented some problems. Because diners had to be out the door by 10, the restaurants couldn’t feasibly seat people later than 8:30. (The curfew was pushed back to 11 p.m. at the beginning of September.)

“The hospitality component of it is a real challenge,” Acevedo says. “People sit down at a restaurant and go out to have fun. Once we’ve made them comfortable and made them forget about everything that’s going on, now we’ve gotta be the bad guys when it’s time to go.”

All Day’s Camila Ramos echoes that sentiment, saying it’s been a challenge to police mask-wearing, although the number of incidents at All Day has been small.

“In the service industry, you’re heavily incentivized to say yes and have people have their way,” Ramos says. “We want people to feel welcomed and to have a good time at our place, but there are boundaries, and I think this has been a good lesson for us on how to communicate boundaries.”

Above all else, Ramos says she feels a commitment to operate as safely as possible for the greater good of the Miami community. But she acknowledges that she’s fortunate to have an outdoor space to utilize, and she realizes other business owners, particularly those without outdoor seating, are in a tough spot.

“If we didn’t have our outdoor area, I don’t know if we would be open today. It’s a really hard decision between social health and business,” she says. “It’s important that we understand that everybody is in a different position. For some, they either open or they’re out of business and bankrupt.”

For those who want to follow the CDC’s best practices, supporting the restaurant industry can sometimes feel like a competing value. But the local experts say both goals can be achieved by ordering takeout or delivery or by asking to be seated outdoors.

“Support your local restaurants, but not eating indoors,” says Adirim, the physician at FAU. When dining outdoors, she also recommends wearing a mask at the table when you’re not actually eating or drinking.

Sposato, the infection expert at Jackson, says that if you want to take a calculated risk and dine indoors, you should call ahead to ask about the restaurant’s air-filtration system or natural ventilation. But in general, she recommends choosing an alternative — if not to protect yourself, then to protect the restaurant’s employees.

“I think this is a huge risk to the restaurant workers, even more so than the patrons of the restaurants,” she says. “We need to optimize the least risky option when it comes to eating food you have not cooked. That’s drive-thru, delivery or pickup, or curbside pickup.”

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