Partway through her shift the Sunday before Christmas, a server at Fox & the Knife in South Boston started feeling sick.
She worried it wasn’t just a headache. There were whispers among employees at the Italian restaurant that colleagues at its sister establishment, Bar Volpe, had tested positive for COVID the day before, Dec. 18, and staff sometimes moved between the two places. But Fox & the Knife remained open as usual, with no word from management.
“I think I might have COVID,” the worker — who requested anonymity for fear of retribution — said she told her manager that day. She recalled his reply: “I think I have it too.”
Within two days, both restaurants shut their doors amid staff outcry. The staffer, her manager, and at least nine other workers tested positive for COVID, according to estimates from several employees. Two complaints were filed with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
The outbreak at the sister Southie eateries — described to the Globe by five employees there — is an example of how quickly Omicron can rip through a restaurant. Even in a place that apparently followed Centers for Disease Control guidelines, a fast-moving outbreak forced tough decisions and left hard feelings in its wake. While every industry is struggling with the surge of the highly contagious variant, it has proven particularly challenging for restaurants already grappling with an acute labor shortage and nearly two years of stop-and-start reopenings that have forced many to close for good.
The lack of clear state and federal guidance has fueled confusion and conflict over safety measures, especially when an employee tests positive. Figuring out how to stay afloat amid another COVID winter is straining an industry long at its breaking point.
Dozens of Boston restaurants preemptively closed or shifted to takeout as cases began to surge in December. Others shut in response to positive cases among staff, quarantining at the height of the holiday rush. Then there are examples such as Karen Akunowicz’s two acclaimed spots in Southie, which briefly stayed open only to see the virus outrace efforts at containment, leading to frustration, finger-pointing, and a pileup of positive cases.
“It’s been rough,” Akunowicz wrote in an e-mail to the Globe last week. “We have been trying to strike a balance between some of our employees who desperately need to work and those employees fearful of coming to work and getting COVID, as well as the health and safety of our community.”
Many restaurants have struggled to adapt to Omicron. And their responses have varied.
When Will Gilson learned that two employees had tested positive with breakthrough cases on Dec. 22, he converted his four Cambridge restaurants — Puritan & Company, The Lexington, Geppetto, and Café Beatrice — to takeout-only through the New Year. Puritan will reopen Thursday; the others remain takeout.
At Brick & Mortar in Central Square in Cambridge, owner Gary Strack began giving his eight employees rapid tests in mid-December so they could swab their noses before opening up the cocktail bar, which is open Wednesdays through Saturdays. Sometimes, he said, that meant driving to New Hampshire, or dropping $25 for a single test.
The only employee who so far has tested positive, Strack said, was not in contact with co-workers. But the restaurant closed for a day nonetheless so everyone could take a test, he said.
Of course, every day closed costs money. And the choices such establishments face have become increasingly dire, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, pointing to waves of permanent closures and faded hopes for more federal aid. Staffing shortages, severe even before Omicron hit, have only made things worse.
“When you have three or four people call out that either have been diagnosed with COVID or are close contact, that can cripple a restaurant,” he said. “Restaurants right now are having to play it day by day, shift by shift in terms of what they can do.”
Most restaurants, Luz said, “continue to operate and err on the side of safety.”
Complicating matters, said Irene Li, owner of Mei Mei Boston, who has advocated for workers, is that restaurants have received little guidance — and increasingly little help — as the pandemic has dragged on.
“No one is telling us how to deal with this and the support we had at the beginning of the pandemic is gone,” said Li, who has pivoted her own Fenway restaurant into a food delivery company. “We have only bad options for the most part and that is what leads to bad choices.”
For some employees at Fox & the Knife, a few key choices changed everything.
More than 100 diners might come through on a typical night, many drawn by Akunowicz’s buzzy social media and reputation as a James Beard Foundation Award winner who competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The three-year-old eatery was her first solo venture, and in November, Akunowicz opened Bar Volpe, just up West Broadway.
The two spots sometimes share staff, though Akunowicz says those are usually just a few managers. Still, that’s how employees suspect the cases spread.
The first case cropped up at Bar Volpe on Friday, Dec. 17, when Akunowicz learned an employee had tested positive. She spent $6,250 to provide antigen tests —which are faster but less sensitive than PCR testing — for more than 40 Bar Volpe employees. Two tested positive, and were sent home, and Bar Volpe closed early that Saturday evening.
Fox & the Knife, though, remained open on Sunday. And, according to one of the OSHA complaints, three employees who worked at Volpe came to work at Fox & the Knife.
Akunowicz said that all three were asymptomatic and had tested negative Saturday. But one complained that Sunday he was feeling unwell, according to the staffer who first felt sick Sunday and an OSHA complaint filed by a different Fox & the Knife employee. He “worked the whole shift anyway,” she said.
On Monday, with the restaurant closed as usual, a Fox & the Knife employee tested positive. On Tuesday, Akunowicz e-mailed staff about the case and suggested exposed employees get a PCR COVID test before the restaurant reopened Wednesday.
“They still planned to open the next day,” said Fox server Katherine Hopkinson. “That was just bizarre.”
In a chain of increasingly anxious e-mails, some employees replied that they were worried about their own health and whether they might be exposing guests, who had not yet been informed about cases at either restaurant. Another asked if there would also be rapid testing for Fox employees, which Akunowicz said was not possible.
Bartender Tyler Lymer, who had been out for a few weeks with an injury, responded more bluntly, according to e-mails reviewed by the Globe.
“Nobody feels comfortable working, especially when they feel endangered when ownership seems hellbent on making a buck at the expense of the staff and guests,” wrote Lymer. “Chef, I’m going to ask you to please do the right things.”
Ultimately, Akunowicz decided to close both restaurants until Dec. 28 and post brief announcements on Instagram. After more cases cropped up, that was extended to Jan. 5.
Throughout, Akunowicz said, she has tried to follow CDC guidelines, which advise fully vaccinated people to mask after a close contact and if there are no symptoms get a test “if possible.”
“For two years we have pivoted at every change in CDC guidelines,” she told the Globe. “We have always put the good of our staff and the good of our guests first.”
Still, some employees decided they needed more. Last week, several sent Akunowicz a list of COVID measures they wanted to see implemented at the restaurants, including ensuring ill workers could tap into the state’s paid sick leave program, procuring rapid tests for employees ahead of shifts, and swifter communication about potential exposures.
And in the event of an exposure at Fox & the Knife or Bar Volpe, they added, both should close. The letter was unsigned but backed by at least 15 employees, according to its authors.
Akunowicz told the Globe last week that they were working to ensure workers get paid despite the COVID closures. “We always welcome feedback from staff and look forward to addressing it internally with our team.”
When asked about the OSHA complaints, Akunowicz blamed a “disgruntled employee,” though she did not address follow-up questions seeking more details. OSHA, through a spokesman, confirmed it had received two complaints on Dec. 23 but was awaiting a response from the restaurants as of late last week.
Bar Volpe reopened Dec. 30. Fox & the Knife is scheduled to reopen Wednesday.
Diti Kohli, Janelle Nanos, Devra First, and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.