TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. –– The early September phone call came as a total surprise to the staff of the Boatyard Grill. On the other end of the phone was the Tompkins County Health Department, informing them that there had been an employee of the restaurant had tested positive for COVID-19 and had recently worked shifts, meaning other workers who had close contact with the infected employee would have to quarantine as well. Two days later, they would find out that a second employee had also tested positive

Understandably, the owners of Boatyard Grill were taken aback. They had just recently rehired the two workers, among other seasonal employees, in preparation for the return of college students. 

“We got a call just out of left field from the health department, they say ‘By the way, a couple of your employees have tested positive,’” owner Mark Campagnolo told the Voice. “We’re like ‘Good heavens.’ It hit us like a bolt of lightning, because we know the seriousness of this.”

The initial parts of the follow-up process are fairly straightforward, according to Tompkins County Health Department Frank Kruppa. A positive test is discovered, the person is notified, quarantined and the contact tracing process begins, aimed at identifying anyone who may have come into close contact with the person who tested positive and then instructing them to quarantine to stem any further spread. In Boatyard’s case, Campagnolo said that the health department began daily checks, both with the restaurant and with the workers who were in quarantine.

“What goes on behind the scenes is a tremendous effort,” Campagnolo said, commending the health department’s help and consultation during the process.

But the contact tracing method has limitations, especially when someone who has a public-facing job where they are interacting with dozens or hundreds of people, potentially spreading the virus before knowing they have it. Similar scenarios have played out over the course of the pandemic, first with a Mango Mango employee who worked a number of shifts while infected. 

Kruppa said when notified of an employee testing positive, the health department consults with the business about what kind of exposure potential there is, what kind of sanitization protocols are in place and dates and times the employee worked. If deemed necessary, the health department then disseminates that information in the form of a community release, as they’ve done in the case of the aforementioned Wegmans employee, and others at GreenStar, Mango Mango, Mirabito and Boatyard Grill, among others. Some have closed for sanitization and cleaning, though the health department determined that the protocols Boatyard Grill had in place were adequate enough that a closure wasn’t necessary.

“If we had to close, we certainly would have,” Campagnolo said. “The health department found that we didn’t.”

There were other ramifications though –– Boatyard had to pull all 18 servers that worked alongside the two people who tested positive, going into Labor Day Weekend, so that the others could quarantine. 

During the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the Tompkins County Health Department has remained steadfast in its commitment to releasing very little information about people who test positive for COVID-19, citing medical privacy and a desire to not alienate positive patients. In the early days and weeks of the pandemic, it was a source of frustration for an overwhelmed and confused public, who wanted to know more about those who tested positive, where they were being quarantined, etc. 

In certain instances, though, the health department has had to issue community releases designed to alert the public to a potential instances of exposure. That was shown most recently by the department’s release that revealed two employees of Ithaca’s Boatyard Grill had tested positive. The release followed a pattern that the department has consistently employed in prior announcements pertaining to employees of local businesses testing positive, most notably detailing the times and dates when the employees worked to alert people who may have been in the restaurant at that time. 

Public announcements concerning positive tests must be made carefully, Kruppa acknowledged. The health department has to balance the need to spread the word to people potentially exposed while also trying to protect the identity and related medical information of the person or people who tested positive. 

From the business standpoint, there’s also economic considerations—people are obviously less likely to go somewhere they feel at risk of contracting the virus, and thus possibly less willing to patronize a business where a positive case has been found. Kruppa said while those considerations have no bearing on whether or not the health department releases information, they are cognizant of the impact and try to provide enough context in their releases to mitigate the after-effects. They also work with businesses in the aftermath to ensure that they are following proper practices to prevent another case, to the extent that is possible. 

“It certainly doesn’t impact our decision about whether or not we need to notify the public, that is solely a public health decision,” Kruppa said. “But we absolutely recognize that this is difficult for businesses. In every instance that we’ve done a release, we’ve worked with businesses to make sure they were aware of what we were going to be releasing before it was released.”

Those impacts have been seen at Boatyard in the wake of the positive tests, Campagnolo said, as general anxiety about going to restaurants mixed with the additional scrutiny of actually having positive cases in the building, even though there was no widespread infection found from the Boatyard cases. 

“Certainly, apprehensions are there for people to go out,” he said. 

What triggers a community release isn’t exactly a science, but Kruppa said the department weighs the possibility of exposure and said that they treat positive tests among employees differently than if a customer tests positive.

“If someone who tested positive was in a local business and they were wearing their mask the entire time, they didn’t have long extended contact with anyone, even just walking to the store, picking up their items, going to the cash register, walking out,” Kruppa said. “As long as there wasn’t any prolonged exposure, normally more than 10 minutes of direct contact with another individual, we don’t consider there to be exposures in the business.”

If an employee tests positive, Kruppa said the considerations are different and the health department is more likely to issue a community release, because an employee would be in the building longer and would have less of an idea who they are interacting with as customers cycle in and out, making the tracing more difficult. In those scenarios, a community release is deployed in order to notify the public more extensively and quickly. 

“They don’t have any input into the decision of whether we do or not,” Kruppa said. “But we do work with them, because we want to make sure that we are able to communicate about steps that the business has taken, to prevent any exposures and then also if there’s any cleaning or other things like that they might want to do, we want to make the public aware of that.”

Campagnolo also said the employees who tested positive, who he confirmed were both students, did not contract the virus at Boatyard and that no other employees tested positive. The health department also has not announced any additional cases linked with the two workers at the restaurant.

“We are finding that most cases of transmission here locally are happening in households or very, very close contact settings where people are spending long periods of time together,” Kruppa said. “We have not seen where instances where very short contact in a business has led to additional positive cases. I think it’s fair to say that in most cases, if a case is identified in an employee, it is more likely that employee contracted the virus outside of work and just happened to work in that particular business.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com