Texas Roadhouse's Crystal Lake restaurant was not given enough time to respond to a cluster of COVID-19 cases among staff before being shut down and outed to the public, a spokesman for the chain said Thursday, calling the McHenry County Department of Public Health's news release the day before "alarmist."
Four of the restaurant's employees tested positive for COVID-19 within the last month and another before that, said Travis Doster, the vice president of communications for Texas Roadhouse. The last employee to test positive notified management at the end of July, about a week before the restaurant received a call from the McHenry County Department of Public Health instructing the business to close its doors.
"We did our own contact tracing the same day," Doster wrote in an emailed statement. "We actually excluded 14 [employees] out of an abundance of caution."
The call came on Tuesday when the health department learned that a recent customer had also tested positive, Doster said.
"The restaurant thought it was a scam because they called and said 'You've had some guests test positive, I think you should close down,'" he said.
Later that evening, officials from McHenry County's environmental health and public health nursing divisions visited the restaurant and, ultimately, spoke with the restaurant's owner, manager and the chain's sanitation director, health department spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said in an interview Thursday.
“I spoke with Doster to let him know that we were sending out the news release as a courtesy and why we were doing it [was] to really alert the public that we have noticed a trend leading back to this particular business,” Salvatelli said. “Their sanitation director came out and they also agreed that they should be shut down, so that's ultimately where they made their decision.”
Salvatelli also questioned how Doster would know how people had actually tested positive. She declined to say how many cases the health department has tied to the restaurant.
The Crystal Lake location reported another positive case earlier on in the pandemic, Doster said. Of the recent cases, he said he believed one of the employees was exposed outside of the restaurant and that none of them worked while they were symptomatic.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that COVID-19 can be spread by someone before the onset of symptoms.
The restaurant has been tasked with getting all its staff tested before reopening, something Doster said places an undue burden on the restaurant, especially given the challenge of limited testing availability and long wait times for results.
“It doesn't feel to us that this was a normal investigation,” he said. “It's kind of a rush to judgment.”
Having to shut down for an extended period of time, coupled with the stigma of being associated with an outbreak of COVID-19, could seriously impact the business, Doster said.
"I just think it's blighting the restaurant industry more than any other industry and, I mean, I don't even know if this restaurant will survive and that's 140 jobs," he said. "And then everybody thinks it's safe to go to Walmart or Target but don't go to this restaurant, there was an outbreak. All they hear is outbreak, outbreak."
The health department has been working with the restaurant to utilize its contact tracing to identify which staff members may be at risk of having contracted the virus, Salvatelli.
"We understand it’s a difficult decision for any facility to close its doors, but it’s done to prevent any unnecessary public health risk," Salvatelli wrote in an emailed statement. "We appreciate Texas Roadhouse for their cooperation and for doing their part in the interest of public health."
The Texas Roadhouse situation is emblematic of greater confusion around how the enforcement of COVID-19 safety protocols for businesses should be handled in the absence of clear directives from the state.
This confusion becomes more dangerous as the number of complaints of COVID-19 safety violations by businesses increase in McHenry County's health region, which also includes Lake County.
Since the start of Phase 3 and into Phase 4 of Gov. JB Pritzker's reopening plan, the health departments of McHenry and Lake counties have investigated over 300 business-related complaints, according to a press release sent out Thursday afternoon.
“In our region, we are working with municipal leaders to step up local enforcement, reinforcing this message: these guidelines are not just a suggestion, they are critical to protecting the public’s health so that businesses can remain open," Executive Director of the Lake County Health Department Mark Pfister said in the release.
Doster said that food businesses receive an unfair level of scrutiny when compared to other businesses, especially given that preexisting sanitation procedures for restaurants are often more thorough than those of retail stores.
“It seems like it's always on restaurants and this is not a food service disease, this is a community disease,” he said.
McHenry County's Division of Environmental Health can only oversee food-related businesses, leaving other businesses to be regulated by municipal police departments or the state's Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Salvatelli said.
When it comes to COVID-19 safety protocols for food businesses, the health department tries to take an educational approach rather than an enforcement one, she said.
The environmental division has a limited team of inspectors which oversee hundreds of food businesses, meaning that the health department relies on the integrity of establishments to do the right thing when they may pose an infection risk to the community, Salvatelli said.
When there is an outbreak identified, however, the department has stricter procedures to follow and can involve local law enforcement to force businesses to close their doors if they won't do so voluntarily, she said.
According to Pritzker's executive order laying out the safety requirements for businesses during Phase 4, the new rules "may be enforced by state and local law enforcement" but does not give guidance on what that enforcement should look like.
Neither the Woodstock Police Department nor McHenry's have not issued any tickets or citations for violation of COVID-19 safety requirements by businesses and seemed unsure of their ability to do so, officials there said.
The Illinois Governor's Office is aware of this gray area and has been pushing for the consideration of a new rule outlining specific steps that local agencies can take, according to statements made by Pritzker during a news briefing on Monday.
"We certainly are considering what rule we could put in place that [the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules] would approve, but I would say that it's the Legislature that hasn't been willing to move forward," Pritzker said.
In the statement, Pritzker said local health departments and law enforcement are the agencies in charge of making sure these rules are followed, but didn't provide guidance that might allow for more consistency statewide in enforcement.
“It's a patchwork of taking certain rules, and it's very frustrating for a business owner,” Doster said. “It's hard to run businesses when the rules are like a goal post that keeps getting moved."
Texas Roadhouse makes sure that all of its locations follow proper protocols such as capacity limits, social distancing and mask requirements for employees, Doster said. The company also requires staff to complete symptom surveys before each shift and must have their temperatures taken upon entering the building.
This system allows them to avoid outbreaks and continue operating safely, even in the event that a staff member tested positive, he said.