As Texas gradually reopens businesses, the restaurant industry continues to question how to reopen safely and mitigate fears. Concerns swirl among employees around the idea of returning to work and some diners are hesitant to reenter dining rooms.
Like his fellow restaurateurs, Jon Alexis, owner of TJ’s Seafood and co-owner of Malibu Poke, was navigating such a reality. Then he found himself drawn into cofounding a second business that provides mobile on-site PCR (which tests for an active infection) COVID-19 testing for businesses through the start-up company SafeWork. According to Alexis, the start-up is currently in talks with more than 75 North Texas companies, from school districts to airports, restaurant groups to accounting firms, providing a service that can turn around 1,000 tests at a time with a turn-around of 24 to 48 hours.
“This country spent weeks figuring out how to shut down. We’re all mentally exhausted, we’re physically exhausted. And now, suddenly we’re reopening. But how do you safely reopen?” Alexis asks. Cofounder Dr. Nick Karr agrees, and equally keeps the short-term and long-term in mind. “Restaurants have taken such a hit. And I feel bad for these restaurant workers. I think it’s pretty clear to me that COVID is going to be here on some level for at least several years… You can’t sit around and wait. And that’s where I think for us to do testing for restaurants can give them that peace of mind.”
Karr, who runs the urgent care chain Sinai Urgent Care, fielded questions that highlighted the confusion about what safely reopening and reliable testing might look like, not only in a restaurant, but for any business in the absence of set guidelines. Public health experts say robust testing is necessary to reopen sectors of the economy in order to quickly control an outbreak.
Whether an individual needing proof of negative test results to return to work or a 1,000-employee meat-processing plant wanting to have its staff tested, the needs were not best met by an urgent care facility that can only perform several hundred tests a week. Karr and business partner Zach Nathan enlisted Alexis to help them think from the perspective of someone familiar with the logistics of catering events.
“When you’re catering, you’re providing a product to a company. You have to put staff together, hire and train them, book them and coordinate them. You have to go out and make sure that you have everything, because if you forgot a chafing dish, you’re screwed,” says Alexis, whose first job at his family business was in catering. “All the logistics are the same, and in fact maintaining health practices is not dissimilar to a restaurant. So I could very quickly turn all my processes for corporate catering and turn them into processes for how to set up a mobile testing site. It really was oddly intuitive.”
The service they offer involves patient interactions that last under five minutes. They visit a site and custom fit the testing. Here’s how it’d work: They bring equipment—from tables and clipboards to test kits—and dispose of medical waste. Then, a quick response plan is in place for dealing with any eventual positive lab results (from one of several dozen FDA-approved LabCorps labs, says Karr), which would include contact tracing, retesting, and reporting to the county health department.
Perhaps the office is closed, and outdoor testing and negative-result reporting will allow it to reopen. Perhaps a company is already operating, and SafeWork tests in the lobby, with social distancing, without interrupting work flow. They’ve talked with construction companies that have a cycling work force. The goal is to plan and strategize for different situations. SafeWork is able to provide solutions for companies that fall under categories of more than 100 or less than 100 employees.
The first testing was of the TJ’s Seafood on April 23 and then of the Malibu Poke staffs. “I was our first guinea pig, and I wanted to selfishly bring it to my business first and to my customer base,” says Alexis.
The new business has just over 50 employees, many drawn from a pool of urgent care practitioners who are out of work, says Alexis. In record time, they wrote employee manuals, organized payroll, arranged contracts, and outfitted trucks with logos. “We have been working until 4 a.m. every morning until someone falls asleep on the Zoom,” says Alexis. “We literally did six months of start-up work in two weeks. This quarantine life is almost the perfect incubator for a start-up”—as disengaged from distractions as it is focused on a sense of purpose.
“We just sort of woke one morning in this Black Mirror episode, and how do you figure this out? Nobody’s even thought about how these puzzle pieces get put back together once we’ve taken them apart,” says Alexis.
This is one way to make people feel safe.
“’I want to support your restaurant. But how do I know one of your line cooks doesn’t have corona?’” customers would ask Alexis, he says, when they started doing takeout. “I get it. And I can tell you that we wear masks and change our gloves and do symptoms screenings. But the only way to tell you is if we are regularly testing our staff. And I think if we can bring that to the rest of the restaurant community, we can get diners back in seats.”
So it’s a personal mission as well as one that helps home in on a maddeningly elusive variable. Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that restaurants could reopen at 25 percent capacity on May 1 has put restaurants in a difficult position, some with staff who are concerned about interactions with the public and exposure—and vice versa for many diners. Meanwhile, without access to reliable testing, they’re missing the puzzle piece that would help foster clarity and provide a certain amount of relief.
“What can I do to get people back into my restaurant, my friend’s restaurant, my neighborhood restaurants, the restaurants I love eating in? How do we fix this very acute problem of the restaurant industry? Because we were teetering before all this. Everybody knows that. You took a very vulnerable industry and just burned it to the ground.”