When Johnna Hayes learned an employee at Bird & Bottle had been exposed to COVID-19, she and her partners in 3 Sirens Restaurant Group made a quick decision.

“It wasn’t difficult for us to decide,” said Hayes, who also co-owns Bramble Breakfast & Bar and Celebrity Restaurant. “We owe it to our guests who have supported us over the years to know there has been an exposure and we are committed to keeping our staff safe, getting them tested and allowing our guests to decide based on our transparency if they want to get tested.

“Everyone deserves to know if they’ve been exposed, especially since we are still learning what we are dealing with.”

Hayes temporarily closed Bird & Bottle, had the restaurant professionally sanitized and maintained strict safety procedures with the staff.

Other business owners have had similar experiences, and to their credit, some have gone public, including Queenie’s, Mother Road Market and Prairie Brewpub. Others have closed temporarily without explanation.

These experiences underscore the stress and fears felt by virtually all restaurant workers during the pandemic.

“After the shutdown, which was traumatic for most, myself included, not only were employees set back financially and their worlds thrown upside down, they now work with the looming threat their restaurant could again be shut down due to a fellow employee being exposed, and if not that, simply a slowdown in business because of customer fear of this — which, quite frankly, I understand,” Hayes said. “This pandemic has taken this industry’s security away, and that’s hard to deal with mentally.”

Josh Royal, co-owner of R Bar & Grill and Roosevelt’s Gastropub, said the pandemic also has been a mental burden on his employees.

“They are constantly worried about the virus,” he said. “I usually spend a couple hours each day fielding phone calls or texts from employee concerns. We are following Tulsa Health Department and CDC guidelines, but it’s still not enough to ease their worries. Most employees are only working a few shifts a week for decreased exposure.”

Jim O’Connor, operations manager for the McNellie’s Group, which includes McNellie’s Pub, Yokozuna, Dilly Diner, The Tavern and others, said the restaurants have been proactive with their employees.

“They undergo a pre-shift health screening that includes a temperature check, and they wear a mask throughout their shifts,” he said. “Additionally, we worked closely with the Tulsa Health Department to create a COVID-19 protocol guidebook for our employees. This guidebook outlines what steps they need to take to protect themselves, their co-workers, and, of course, our customers.”

Those interviewed don’t expect things to change any time soon.

“We do anticipate that our employees and customers will continue to struggle with fear until there is a proven therapeutic or vaccine,” O’Connor said. “Unfortunately, a ‘cure’ is likely a long way off. Therefore, we are convinced that the restaurant industry will need additional support from local, state and federal agencies in order to survive this crisis.

“The economics right now are simply unsustainable because revenues are languishing at levels that are significantly below historic levels.”

Royal and Hayes both said they don’t expect any quick fixes but vow to keep up the fight.

“We may have seen greater success if our city leaders had taken swifter actions in response to this pandemic,” Royal said. “At the beginning of this pandemic, Elliot Nelson (founder and CEO of McNellie’s Group) created an email, text and Groupme thread with Tulsa and OKC restaurant owners. It has been extremely helpful to communicate with each other about what is working or not working in each of our businesses. Every day presents new challenges, which I don’t anticipate changing any time soon. “

Added Hayes:

“We do anticipate more struggles, but I personally am trying to leave fear out of it. It won’t do us any good. Our team is constantly talking, troubleshooting and trying to figure out how best to fight this.

“And let’s be honest, there isn’t a single person in this industry who isn’t a little scrappy, so we are going to try like hell to survive this. We have to.”

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Scott Cherry 918-581-8463


Twitter: @ScottCherryTW

Scene Writer

Scott is in his second tour of duty with the Tulsa World. He was a sports writer during his first stop. Since returning to the World in 1992, he has been the food writer and now restaurant critic and wine columnist. Phone: 918-581-8463

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