At least three Decatur restaurants and one in Priceville are temporarily closed due to concerns about employees being exposed to the coronavirus, precautions that come as Morgan County COVID-19 hospitalizations remain at the highest levels since the pandemic began and officials expect them to climb higher.
An employee at Moe’s Original Bar B Que in downtown Decatur tested positive Friday, according to owner Ryan Helsley, and because he and other managers travel frequently to Mellow Mushroom, which he also owns, and the Moe’s in Priceville, Helsley closed down all three. He said he is awaiting test results on all those who had contact with the infected employee before reopening.
Decatur Country Club also temporarily closed for dining as a precaution while it waits on test results from an employee who was exposed to someone who tested positive.
Family Security Credit Union on Sixth Avenue Southeast also closed its lobby after an employee tested positive, according to a notice it sent to customers.
The CEO of Huntsville Hospital Health System, which includes Decatur Morgan Hospital, said the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Decatur Morgan is a concern.
“Decatur has been a busy community. There have been a lot of positive cases over there,” Spillers said. “We’ve been watching a lot of community-based cases there.”
As of Monday morning, Spillers said, Decatur Morgan Hospital had 23 COVID-19 inpatients. Sixteen of those were in the intensive care unit and seven were on ventilators.
“They’ve increased the capacity of beds. They are preparing for more. They believe, based upon the community spread in Morgan County, they’re going to see more patients,” Spillers said. “So they’re doing everything they can to prepare to take care of that community, and doing a very good job.”
Helsley said one of his employees at the Moe's in downtown Decatur was tested last Tuesday after learning he had possibly been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“We kept him out of the building for the rest of the week, and when his results came in Friday they were positive,” Helsley said, although he said the employee was not exhibiting symptoms as of Monday. Health officials have warned that asymptomatic and presymptomatic people can spread the virus to others.
Helsley said he and his management team are constantly traveling back and forth between the three restaurants he owns.
“We just felt it was best to take the safer route and shut down and get everybody tested before getting back to work, rather than potentially spreading it among the three places,” he said. “Better to be safe than sorry, especially when it comes to the public’s health.”
Helsley, his management team and all employees who overlapped with the infected employee had testing done Saturday, he said, and they are awaiting test results.
Helsley said the downtown Moe’s did not close immediately Friday after the employee received word on his positive test.
“We were in the middle of the dinner rush Friday when he had tried to call me. I didn’t get to my phone immediately. Once we found out, we had several phone calls and discussions we had to make before we completely turned out the lights and kicked everybody out, one of those calls being the health department just to see what all they would recommend.”
He said the Morgan County Health Department recommended they close down for a day to sanitize the restaurant.
“We felt that was maybe counterproductive (to close only one day) because then an infected person could potentially come right back to work the next day and keep the cycle going,” he said. “In our line of work, kitchen guys are constantly working on top of each other.”
He said several employees’ test results have come back negative, but until more negative results come back he does not have enough employees to reopen.
“We just simply can’t run the show with a handful of people,” he said.
Helsley said no contact tracers from the Alabama Department of Public Health had contacted him as of Monday, despite the fact his employee’s exposure was on or before last Tuesday.
Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers said privacy concerns limit information shared with employers.
“Persons under investigation are provided information for their employers so persons can remain at home pending results,” she said Monday. “Cases are asked to provide information related to their contacts. ADPH cannot discuss information related to a case, but the entity may reach out again to ADPH for follow up. ... It is important to be aware that persons may not be deemed contacts based upon an investigation, as details of interaction are considered as part of the process.”
Jeremy Bryant, public health senior environmentalist at the Morgan County Health Department, said a restaurant who has an employee test positive is not required to close, although the employee is required to go into quarantine and should go into quarantine beginning when they are tested.
“Food establishment employees are considered essential in Alabama,” he said, which means employees who have not been tested and are not symptomatic may remain on the job. The employer is required to take certain screening measures for 14 days after the last exposure other employees had with the person who tested positive. The screening, he said, mainly involves daily temperature checks and monitoring the exposed employee for symptoms.
Those who have been exposed to a co-employee who tested positive also are required to wear masks at all times at work, not just when interacting with the public.
Bryant said he’s received coronavirus-related complaints against about two dozen Morgan County establishments.
“We certainly have gotten complaints about restaurants that were not following the health order, and we’ve also gotten complaints from people who said staff have tested positive and are concerned about how the establishment is handling that.”
He said prior to the pandemic the approach to handling a citizen’s complaint about a restaurant was to do an unannounced inspection to see if the complaint was valid.
“Because coronavirus is new and the health order requires things that have not previously been required, we will typically now make a phone call to the owner or management of the establishment and let them know we’ve gotten a complaint,” he said.
He said that if, for example, a citizen complains that restaurant workers interacting with the public are not wearing masks, his department will talk to owners or managers and make sure they understand the requirements of the emergency health order.
“Then we follow up with an unannounced visit to make sure they are in fact complying,” he said.
Bryant said his agency has not had to suspend the permits of any Morgan County restaurants.
“We’re trying to get compliance more than we’re trying to penalize people,” he said. “That said, if someone refused to comply, we would follow our established procedure for suspending their permit until they gave us a plan to come into compliance and the plan was approved.”
Bryant said his agency responds to complaints, but “we’re not out patrolling, looking for violations of the health order.”
Decatur Country Club
Carey Sutton, manager of the Decatur Country Club, said its restaurant has also closed due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We had an employee who may have possibly been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19,” Sutton said. “We chose to close in an abundance of caution. Our employee has gone for testing. The results of that person’s test will dictate when we reopen.”
A bulletin issued Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there currently is "no evidence to suggest that handling food or consuming food is associated with COVID-19. ... Coronaviruses, like the one that causes COVID-19, are thought to spread mostly person-to-person through respiratory droplets when someone coughs, sneezes or talks."
An official with Family Security Credit Union was not available for comment Monday, but a notice sent to customers Friday said it had closed the lobby of the Sixth Avenue Southeast branch after an employee there tested positive for COVID-19.
“We are allowing the entire branch staff to self-isolate, and we have professionally sanitized the branch,” according to the statement.
The drive-thru is being operated by employees from other branches, according to the notice.