Staring in January, Philly restaurant workers will have access to free weekly tests at a shuttered local bar. Cities everywhere should adopt the same playbook.

By Regan Stephens
December 22, 2020
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Nicole Marquis got an email from her son’s preschool this fall. One of the students had tested positive for COVID-19, so they were offering free tests for the students and teachers through a wellness company called Ivee. Marquis, a Philadelphia-based restaurateur and founder of Save Philly Restaurants, wondered how she could use the same resource for the city’s restaurant workers.

Marquis started the coalition in the spring, right after the pandemic forced restaurants to shutter. Months later, as colder weather halted outdoor dining and new cases of the virus began soaring, the restaurateur saw there was still no help on the way for restaurants.

Masked waiter serving unmasked restaurant guests
Credit: Getty Images

“We realized the city still doesn't have a plan,” she said. “The only weapon that they're using against the virus is shutting down. That's it. So we just started saying where are the tests, which can actually keep us operating in a really smart and safe way?”

Thanks to Save Philly Restaurants, starting on January 7, all restaurant workers will have access to free weekly COVID-19 tests, provided through Ivee and funded through the CARES Act. The testing site will be set up at local restaurant owner Fergus Carey’s currently shuttered bar, and unlike most other operations in the city, this one requires no insurance card, social security number, or license to book it.

More than 11 months into the pandemic, there’s still no cohesive plan to protect workers in the hospitality sector. No plan to keep restaurants open, no plan to keep workers safe, and no plan to save the restaurant industry—an industry that employs over 15 million people nationwide, and has lost $130 billion in sales compared to last year. (The recently passed Coronavirus Relief Bill left out a specific Restaurants Act that would have earmarked money for mom-and-pop establishments. Many experts fear the current bill won’t do enough to save the industry.)

And while the vaccines are currently being deployed to front line healthcare workers, and soon, to nursing homes and seniors, according to the CDC vaccine priority list, it may take months before they make it to restaurant workers. And we have a winter to get through first.

Since the start of the pandemic, restaurant owners have been scrambling to innovate, some employing technology like temperature screeners and apps to monitor employees’ health. But, as the New York Times noted back in May, the plan wasn’t foolproof.

“Public health experts and bioethicists said it was important for employers to find ways to protect their workers during the pandemic,” the reporter noted. “But they cautioned there was little evidence to suggest that the new tools could accurately determine employees’ health status or contain virus outbreaks.”

As we’ve seen play out in real time over the summer and fall—they couldn’t, and they didn’t. What’s more, these methods can actually help spread the disease, as an all-clear from a sleek robot thermometer might give workers a false sense of security, even if they’re actually infected.

What can keep people safer, epidemiologists have discovered, is frequent testing. A study released in November looking at Duke University’s testing strategy showed that comprehensive testing of asymptomatic individuals can help prevent COVID-19 transmission. With widespread testing and rapid results, asymptomatic carriers can be identified and stopped from inadvertently infecting others. In other words, testing can help decrease community spread.

But even if we’re not weekly testing an entire cohort of people—say, on-campus university students or the entire population of restaurant workers in Philadelphia—easy access to a test if you’re symptomatic, or have been exposed to someone who’s positive, is crucial to help stop the spread, keep restaurants open (even just for take out), and support an industry that continues to be decimated.

“Free testing will allow restaurants to keep employees and customers safe, quickly control an outbreak and get back to business, if anyone in their team does test positive,” said Marquis. “Plus, it will save thousands of dollars on testing when a COVID-19 scare occurs.” Thousands of dollars that a restaurant doesn’t have after taking hits all year long.

Nick Elmi, the chef and owner of Laurel and ITV in Philadelphia, is relieved by the new free testing initiative, noting that because of the current state of the industry, most restaurants can’t afford to insure all their workers. Plus, there’s a positive ripple effect. “It's not only helping the restaurant industry, it's helping everybody else in this city,” he said.

A lack of insurance, and in some cases, a language barrier, might hinder testing for workers who need or want it. But with the new initiative, any restaurant worker who wants to be tested can go through a portal, with instructions in both English and Spanish, and no insurance or ID are required. “We know some of our employees might be intimidated by going through a long, lengthy process and it can be the reason they don't get tested, so we're making this as easy as possible,” said Marquis.

Back in May, a video of Pennsylvania State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta went viral. Kenyatta was on the house floor, passionately asking how, as restaurants were slated to reopen, we plan to keep restaurant workers safe in the face of an airborne virus.

“What we are demanding right now—and what folks are demanding—is that they get to be served, that they get to go to a restaurant and sit down and be served by a service worker who they refuse to pay a $15 minimum wage,” argued the 29-year-old legislator. He went on to lament how these restaurants, so many of them small businesses, might not be able to afford the PPE to keep their workers safe. Kenyatta, who put himself through college working at a Philadelphia burger joint, told me he wants to make sure that service workers not only get vaccinated, but are treated like the essential workers that they are.

“I understand the value that restaurants play in our community, and also know how hard servers work,” he said. “What's been frustrating for me, having worked in this field, is how often the needs of service workers are completely ignored.” Which is why, he says, the free testing initiative is a great one.

Marquis, for her part, was frustrated the free testing took so long, and she's glad she found a way to make it happen for the community. “The one thing that actually gets us back open, and keeps employees employed is to have the security of knowing,” she said.