Tampa Bay restaurants close over possible COVID-19 exposure but have no obligation to disclose cases

Hillsborough County

Florida does not require establishments close or disclose when staff tests positive

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — Restaurants across the Tampa Bay area rejoiced when Governor Ron DeSantis announced they could re-open.

But now, just a few weeks later, coronavirus is closing some doors once again.

Florida bars and restaurants are not required to close if an employee contracts COVID-19, nor are they obligated to disclose the exposure to the public. In general, there are very few established guidelines for businesses in that situation should do.

Some, like Noble Crust in St. Pete, opt to shut down and be upfront with customers what happened. Noble posted a sign on its door as well as on Facebook Wednesday afternoon.

The post read that Noble would not be re-opening until all staff is cleared by a negative COVID-19 test.

A wave of similar social media posts has washed over Tampa Bay in recent days, from beach bars to fine dining announcing at least one positive employee.

But not everywhere has closed in response to a case. Tampa steakhouse Meat Market deep-cleaned but opted to stay open after it says an employee reported feeling ill on June 8, later testing positive.

“Across Florida, we are seeing restaurants act responsibly when they become aware of a COVID-19 case or exposure that may affect their employees or guests,” said Samantha Padgett, General Counsel, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “We applaud those restaurants who are going above and beyond to keep their teams safe as they increase sanitization and heed CDC and state guidance on safely operating.”

Because bars and restaurants aren’t required to publicly disclose COVID-19 outbreaks among staff, 8 On Your Side has received numerous tips about potential cases that we have not been able to verify with the establishment’s management.

It’s a contrast to when the Bay Area faced a hepatitis A outbreak last year. Restaurants had to notify customers of possible exposure, and those customers were then highly encouraged to get vaccinated.

It’s not the case with COVID-19 because it’s not considered a food-related outbreak, like hep A or norovirus.

In some cases, well-intended transparency can backfire. Meat Market faced some backlash on social media in light of the announcement.

One recent customer, who asked to remain anonymous, told 8 On Your Side she won’t be returning to Meat Market for a while because of the exposure.

“I don’t think I saw more than 25% of the staff wearing masks at all,” she said, adding that the news further cemented pre-existing concerns. “I texted my boyfriend immediately and said ‘I told you so!'”

The uptick in restaurant cases comes as Florida reported its second-largest spike Wednesday, with more than 2,600 new cases in a day.

A Florida Department of Health spokesman told 8 On Your Side that while the agency conducts extensive contact tracing, it’s conducted on a case-by-case basis and a restaurant employee’s positive test would not necessarily be enough to prompt recent customer notification.

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