Grassroots Response Team Forms to Help Houston Restaurant & Bar Owners Navigate COVID-19

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In January, a labor shortage was one of the biggest issues Houston restaurant owners faced. Now, restaurateurs have to contend not only with operating with reduced revenue and staff but also the consequences of what happens when even just one employee tests positive for COVID-19.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) have provided extensive online guides for what to do if an employee tests positive, but restaurateurs who find the mountain of documentation too much to climb can seek help from outside services. One such team has formed under the banner of Convive Hospitality Consulting. Owned by Jonathan Horowitz, the former CEO of Legacy Restaurants (which owns The Original Ninfa’s and Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys) the newly rooted firm has put together a response team that provides guidance to restaurant and bar owners who discover they have COVID-19-positive or -exposed employees.

Jonathan Horowitz
Jonathan Horowitz of Convive Hospitality Consulting. Courtesy photo.

As soon as Horowitz learned that restaurants in Texas were reopening at 25-percent capacity, he started forming the team. Rachel Austin, owner and president of public relations firm Hometown Social, which represents several Houston-area restaurants, had the same idea and soon joined the effort. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Austin. “When we first opened at 25 percent, I think we all knew that restaurants were going to begin to see employees have positive tests.”

In addition to Horowitz and Austin, the response team includes Jacob Monty of Monty & Ramirez, Bryan Neely of HR Ally, Greg Scheinman of INSGroup, and Chirag Bhatt of CHB Food Safety Consulting

Austin started working on a strategy right away. Then, she hit a wall. “Working for so many restaurants, I thought, ‘I should do some research to see how this needs to be handled for one of my clients.’ Then, I found that there were no resources.”

Neither the FDA, CDC, nor Houston Health Department gave Austin any direction. On its website, the Houston Health Department refers restaurant owners and managers to the FDA guidelines (which mirror those of the CDC). Horowitz finds the advice too general for comfort. “These are helpful, but there often will be more questions about specific steps to be taken. This guidance doesn’t deal with issues related to insurance, HR, public relations, etcetera., which also are implicated in these situations.”

Nor do they help owners and operators face what Horowitz calls “the biggest challenge”: time. “There are a lot of things that need to happen very quickly to create an effective response,” says Horowitz.

Rachel Austin
Rachel Austin of Hometown Social. Photo by Al Torres Photography

Convive Hospitality’s team includes experts in public relations, law, human resources, insurance, food safety, and sanitation, which, according to Horowitz, are the five business components most impacted when a restauranter identifies a COVID-19 positive employee. Austin insists that it had to be a team. “I do have the ability to handle media,” she says. “but I don’t feel qualified to answer all of the questions that, say, a health and sanitation expert might be able to answer.”

Horowitz sees the service as a supplement, not a replacement, to government guidelines, such as the CDC’s Considerations for Restaurants and Bars. “The information is good and will be helpful, as long as owners/operators take the time and make the effort to seek it out on the CDC website. However, it doesn’t deal with the issues related to public discussion or announcements, potential insurance claims, or potential legal liabilities,” he says.

“There are certain ‘givens’; things that everyone needs to do,” says Austin. “However, sometimes things need to be modified. We want to offer a customized solution when [an employee tests positive for COVID-19] and they don’t know what to do about it.”

There are a litany of questions for the restaurateur to answer when there’s a coronavirus outbreak among her employees. Horowitz lists a few: “What are your legal obligations as a business owner? Is this a covered event? What happens if you close or there’s a business interruption? How do you handle all of your product? How do you go about cleaning things? Who’s responsible for what?”

Since Austin began her research, TRA has released additional coronavirus guidance resources that do address the business components Horowitz lists, including one that he wrote for the organization. Horowitz wants restaurant owners to see Convive Hospitality Consulting as another resource.

“Everyone is doing their best,” says Austin. “We all have a social responsibility right now to care for each other and be considerate of other people’s health. Every restaurateur I’ve spoken with is doing their very best to mitigate community spread.”

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