Do you need a negative COVID-19 test to return to work? What Valley restaurants decided

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Some restaurants in Mahoning and Trumbull counties require employees to receive negative COVID-19 test before returning to work, as an added safety precaution, though there’s no federal requirement.

Others are letting employees make their own decisions on when they return to work after catching COVID-19.

Businesses are not required through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have employees show a negative COVID-19 test to return to work, though the CDC recommends testing negative before leaving isolation.

But the national testing infrastructure is currently outstripped due to the coronavirus’ extremely contagious omicron variant. Test samples are taking longer to be analyzed, appointments are becoming harder to book and at-home tests are flying off shelves.

Several Valley restaurateurs are taking their own safety measures to prevent COVID-19 exposure. Here’s where they stand:

The family-owned Salvatore’s Italian Grille has locations in Austintown and Howland, and a pizzeria in the Eastwood Mall Complex in Niles. Manager Rose Lamota said all three restaurant locations require employees to show a negative COVID-19 test to return to work for the safety of the staff and customers.

“We just don’t want anyone to get sick when it could be prevented,” she said. “Even if [staff] have the smallest fever or sniffles, they don’t come to work.”

Lamota said the pizzeria has 20 employees, and when someone calls off work because of COVID-19, other employees step up to cover shifts.

“I just had a girl [who] tested negative,” she said. “She sent me the papers. … It was just the flu, but she still stayed home and came back after six days. We all pitch in and help each other if somebody calls off sick.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers can require their workers to deliver a healthcare provider’s note “to verify that employees are healthy and able to return to work” but the CDC recognizes “extremely busy” medical facilities “may not be able to provide such documentation in a timely manner.”

In those cases, the CDC urges businesses to consider not requiring them, and instead follow the CDC’s guidelines for isolating after a positive test. Those guidelines were updated late last month to recommend a five-day isolation period, down from 10 days, for those who haven’t had a fever for at least 24 hours.

Lamota said even though the recommended quarantine is five days, Salvatore’s requires workers to wait another two days before returning to work out of caution.

“We do ask them to wait another two days and then take a test,” she said. “I bought some test kits here, and we test them here as well.”

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided up to two weeks of paid leave for employees who are unable to work because of COVID-19 symptoms, or had to quarantine or seek medical help, the U.S. Department of Labor reported.

But that paid sick leave expired Dec. 31, 2020. Employers who continued to offer extra COVID-19 paid sick leave became eligible for tax credits, but those also expired Sep. 30, 2021, according to the department.

Lamota said employees can take as much time as needed to recover from COVID-19 — but it’s not paid.

“I prefer them to stay home and they can just come back whenever,” she said.

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Jack Kravitz, owner of Kravitz Delicatessen in Youngstown, said right now his employees are able to make their own decisions on when they return to work after having COVID-19, and they’re not required to show a negative test.

“If they have been exposed, we are following the CDC recommendations,” he said. “If you’re fully vaccinated, you’re allowed to return to work if you’re wearing a mask.”

Kravitz said the Liberty deli is currently fully staffed, and has had “some near misses” with employee shortages.

“We’ve had periodic COVID-19 incidents with our staff, and if they’ve been diagnosed we’re having them stay home and do our contact tracing, testing. … Whatever is required at the time,” he said.

Kravitz called CDC’s return-to-work policy “a moving target.”

The American Medical Association agreed in a Jan. 5 letter questioning the CDC’s decision to shorten the recommended isolation period, noting about 31% of people with COVID-19 remain infectious after five days of testing positive for COVID-19. The association called the new guidelines “confusing and counterproductive,” despite being near the end of the pandemic’s second year.

“A negative test should be required for ending isolation after one tests positive for COVID-19. Re-emerging without knowing one’s status unnecessarily risks further transmission of the virus,” said association President Dr. Gerald Harmon.

Kravitz said masks are encouraged for deli workers.

“We haven’t got all of them to do it yet, but we’re encouraging it and within the next few days, we will be requiring that,” he said.

Kravtiz said another reason why he’s not requiring employees to show a negative COVID-19 test is the lack of available at-home COVID-19 test kits in the area.

Though the Ohio Department of Health has distributed 5.6 million free, over-the-counter COVID-19 rapid tests since the pandemic began — including 1.4 million just in December — a nationwide shortage of testing supplies has slowed future distributions, according to a Wednesday news release.

The department is now waiting on more than two-thirds of the 1.2 million kits it ordered for January.

“We’re not requiring any testing right now because it’s hard to get tests right now, and it’s hard to get staff,” Kravitz said. “You put those two together, and it’s a double challenge.”

Station Square Restaurant in Youngstown is requiring employees to show a negative COVID-19 test before returning to work, said manager Liz Bundy.

“If they’ve tested positive, our policy has been they stay off for 10 days and they have to have a negative test before they come back,” she said.

Bundy said employees are required to see a physician and get a lab-based PCR test. While results from those tests typically came back within 1 to 2 days early on in the pandemic, today’s overwhelming testing demand means recipients are now waiting much longer for results.

Vernon Cesta, owner of Vernon’s Cafe in Niles, said his employees have not been required to show a negative COVID-19 test after contracting the virus. There’s one reason: the lack of available and timely testing results.

“By the time they get their test results back, it’s usually three or four days anyway,” he said. “Some people can’t even get tested, so my call on that is to stay home until you feel better.”

The long wait for test results doesn’t help asymptomatic employees who are testing after exposure. By the time they get the results and begin quarantine, they’ve likely been spreading it for days.

“Even by the time they get the symptoms, they’ve already got it, whether it’s a cold, the flu or it’s COVID-19,” Cesta said. “I’m getting tired of it, and I think all the other restaurants around, we are trying to be as safe as we possibly can — especially for customers.”

Cesta said employees are using their own personal sick time to recover from COVID-19.

“We’re trying to do the best we possibly can to keep our business going and to keep our employees working also because if you shut down, then all of a sudden they’re out of work too,” he said.

Hiring new employees and keeping previous staff from the beginning of the pandemic has been a hard task, Cesta said. Employees are not required to do COVID-19 testing unless they are showing symptoms.

“As far as testing goes, no, we’re not doing any testing right now unless they have symptoms,” Cesta said. “If they have symptoms, we tell them to go ahead and get tested right away.”

This story was originally published January 14, 2022 4:00 AM.

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