Workplace Safety in the COVID-19 Era

By Jessica Simmons

As Covid 19 cases rise in our region again, we all continue to weigh decisions about what kind of public interactions are safe or not safe. Do we attend on-campus classes? Do we take a vacation? Do we visit family that we do not live with? Do we return to our favorite brunch spot? 

One thing that many people do not have a choice in is whether they return to work. Reopening procedures vary by state. In some regions, gyms, bars, and some forms of foodservice remain closed or restricted.

In Florida, this is not the case.

Governor DeSantis announced on September 25th that bars and restaurants could resume operation at fifty percent minimum capacity and eliminated fines for lack of compliance with mask rules. This order supersedes local regulations. 

Foodservice is one aspect of business and everyday life that nearly everyone interacts with under normal circumstances. However, the CDC reports, “Adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.” 

Restaurant staff face unique challenges as businesses reopen. They interact with their customers in ways that put them at significant infection risk. They are also a population that generally does not receive health insurance benefits or paid sick leave from their jobs. During widespread closures, most food service staff were qualified for unemployment benefits. But as the businesses that survived the closures opened again, employees were offered their jobs back but faced a crucial decision. They could return to an environment that was (and remains) entirely uncertain regarding safety. Or they could give up their unemployment benefits. Most people do not have the luxury of calling this a choice.  

I spoke to one Lee County restaurant server about their experience. This server works in an open-air environment. They said that the business had reduced their seating capacity to accommodate six-foot spacing between tables and limited party sizes to ten people during the initial reopening. However, after the statewide phase three of reopening, they have gradually added back seating that no longer allows that amount of space and does not continue to limit groups’ size. This employee reports serving a table of sixteen in the past week. They do require masks for staff and customers that are not seated. However, they stopped enforcing the mask requirements for customers due to the fine for the non-compliance drop during phase three and confrontations with customers resistant to wearing them. The business has maintained other safety measures. Including lids for all condiment cups, sanitizing all items that have been on the table during service between every seating, sanitizing menus after each use, and increased availability of hand sanitizers. When asked about their opinion about their safety and returning to work, they said this: 

“When I got the call that we were reopening I didn’t even think twice. I wanted to go back, but that was the fear of not having a job.” Even though I would feel much better and safer in quarantine, I feel like I had to do it. Businesses had fired many people, and I didn’t know when another job opportunity would come up or if the (unemployment) benefits would last. 

I’ll tell you what I told my customers. It’s like I’m living in two different worlds. I go to work where everyone is on vacation and living their life like there isn’t a pandemic going on. Ordering shots and tanning and swimming, and it’s like everything is back to normal, minus the masks. But you go home, see the news and talk to your family and it gets real again.”

Jessica Simmons

Staff Writer – Community

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