Like most restaurants, Ray’s on the River, a fine-dining bastion in Sandy Springs for over 35 years, has been sharply focused on all the safety rules and guidelines it must follow to operate in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. When Ray’s learned on June 3 that an employee tested positive for asymptomatic COVID-19, the restaurant began a required deep-cleaning — but also did something big it didn’t have to do.

It went on Facebook and told the world about the COVID case.

“I think the public is entitled to know what goes on and be [made] aware of it,” said Ray Schoenbaum, the restaurant’s founder and operator of two other Ray’s locations, about that decision. “We owe it to them as a service organization to do what’s right. And, you know, it’s something we all should do and be honest about it, and tell them that we’re doing everything we can to make sure that it doesn’t pass on.”

Ray Schoenbaum gets his temperature checked at his Ray’s on the River restaurant in Sandy Springs. (Special)

Customers who assume that restaurants and other businesses must notify them about positive COVID cases are in for a surprise. The pandemic precautions Georgia restaurants operate under are largely unenforceable guidelines that it appears inspectors are not proactively double-checking, and which do not include public notice of cases. For restaurant owners, that means navigating an ever-shifting sea of suggestions and rules for avoiding a devastating outbreak. Beyond the basics of cleaning and distancing, the biggest practical rule is adapting quickly to maintain customer trust and confidence.

“I’ve been practicing law now for 39 years and this has been the most unique set of circumstances I’ve worked at because the law is unclear” and new ones are still in the works, said Rick Warren, a labor and employment attorney at the Atlanta office of FordHarrison who specializes in the restaurant industry.

Rules like social distancing are easy enough to figure out, Warren and some restaurant owners say. But applying bigger issues, like legal liability for COVID infections, to a particular business can be a complex puzzle. And the answer can lie somewhere between what businesses can do and what they might want to do for better customer and employee relations.

Warren said that, under a new shield law passed by the Georgia General Assembly poised to take effect by Aug. 7, it is highly unlikely that a customer could prove and win a liability case for a COVID-19 infection against a business that is making good-faith efforts to follow safety rules. But, Warren said, businesses still need to consider whether they want to cover their bets by posting a sign at the door warning customers that they enter at their own risk.

“I’m not sure the posting in itself gives you any more protection than the law does without posting the notice,” said Warren. “But as a prophylactic measure, I think you’re going to see businesses putting the signs up because… it will dissuade the public from filing frivolous claims.”

But at McKendrick’s Steak House in Dunwoody, another fine-dining mainstay, such signs have already come and gone.

“We did that initially,” said Carol Conway, the restaurant’s general manager. “We’ve taken those signs down. We feel that’s intrusive.”

Instead, she said, the restaurant focused on following federal and state public health guidelines so that there is no pandemic problem to worry about. The sorts of signs she is interested in posting are those issued by the state’s “Georgia Safety Promise” campaign, where businesses can publicize themselves as following basic COVID-fighting rules.

The Facebook post where Ray’s on the River announced a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. The restaurant reopened after a cleaning.

The most complex decision of all comes when a COVID diagnosis rears its ugly head. For every restaurant that chooses to publicize a positive test on Facebook, it seems, more are dealing with COVID-19 behind the scenes.

Warren said there’s a clear trend in the questions he is hearing from his clients: “A lot of calls about positive COVID-19 tests. Someone has come in and they have tested positive. What do we need to do? What is the extent of what we need to do? How long do we have to do it?”

Shifting rules

Georgia restaurants currently operate under non-mandatory guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration. They also have been following 35 mandatory rules under an emergency executive order from Gov. Brian Kemp, the latest version of which runs through Aug. 15 and which Warren said is likely to be extended and tweaked as long as the pandemic continues. The governor’s rules cover such topics as cleanliness, social distancing and employee screening.

At Ray’s and McKendrick’s, the guidelines and rules haven’t been hard to understand and follow, according to Schoenbaum and Conway. For example, Conway said, while Kemp’s orders have shifted from restricting dining room occupancy by square-footage to basic social distancing, the solution at McKendrick’s was similar and simple: “We seat every other table.”

For customers who wonder whether a restaurant or other business is really following all the procedures, however, there is little to go on besides word of mouth and their own experience. Warren said he has not heard of any proactive inspections of restaurants for pandemic-precaution compliance and expects that they would be driven by customer complaints if they happen. Schoenbaum said he hasn’t seen inspectors, either, and has noticed some breaches when he has dined at other spots.

“I think the government people are all busy trying to figure out stuff that they haven’t figured out yet. They don’t want to start arguments with the restaurants,” said Schoenbaum. “I’ve been to several restaurants that are definitely not in [compliance with] code.”

Violating the governor’s order is officially a criminal misdemeanor, Warren noted, and he said businesses have plenty of motivation to stick to the rules because of the devastation a shutdown could bring as they struggle to survive the pandemic economy. But the flip side of no government inspections is little government help in interpreting those rules. Warren said theoretically some state official could answer questions, but when they are “overwhelmed and understaffed and people are working remotely, good luck.”

Attorney Rick Warren. (Special)

Warren is advising clients on dealing with COVID-positive employees, which varies widely depending on the type of business and the situation. At least for now, there is no mandate for notifying anyone about such cases, he said, while CDC guidelines recommended informing coworkers who may have been exposed — a definition that requires interpretation. Then there are wrinkles, like legal prohibitions on disclosing medical information, and in Georgia, the possibility that a Department of Public Health official likely can compel notification of others for contact-tracing or other purposes.

“There is substantial flexibility in what employers choose to do in terms of notifying the workforce and notifying the public of a positive test result,” said Warren. He added that, while businesses have no obligation to tell non-exposed employees about a COVID-positive coworker, some might do so for a “philosophical, moral, employee-relations reason.”

A similar reasoning is followed by the restaurants that choose to inform the public.

“Keeping a secret’s just going to get you in trouble, because somebody’s going to report,” said Schoenbaum. “Somebody in the kitchen’s going to say something to somebody. It can get back to you.”

The PURE Taqueria restaurant in Brookhaven gained some online support after a June 16 Facebook announcement that two employees had tested positive. Some commenters replied that they weren’t surprised, saying they had avoided the restaurant due to lack of social distancing and employees wearing masks incorrectly or not at all. When PURE — which did not respond to a comment request — reopened eight days later, it announced new training and CDC guideline compliance as well, writing on Facebook, “We’re sorry and we can do better.” That drew praise from at least one of the commenters who had expressed concern.

The PURE Taqueria restaurant in Brookhaven responds on Facebook to customer concerns when it reopened following the diagnosis of two staff members with COVID-19.

Customers have a big say in how businesses work, and as they act as their own safety watchdogs, they may want some tighter rules than the government requires. At McKendrick’s, Conway said, some customers ask for even more distancing — even individual family members sitting apart — and the restaurant is happy to help.

“Even the most gung-ho and cavalier of all of this, they’re skittish among us,” she said, describing a “day-to-day adjustment” of how to meet customer demand.

Schoenbaum said that when he dines out, he personally doesn’t care about more elaborate precautions.

“As long as I got my mask on, I feel OK,” he said. “I listen to Fox, not CNN, OK?”

But for his customers at Ray’s, Schoenbaum said, he goes well beyond the guidelines. All the way back in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, he installed virus-killing ultraviolet lights in the air conditioning system in response to the possibility of the disease spreading in circulated air, a factor that got little attention at the time but is better appreciated now.

“That’s one of the things we did over and above that we didn’t have to do…,” said Schoenbaum. “We owe it to [customers] to do absolutely everything we can to make them feel comfortable.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.