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Tennessee has allowed restaurants to partially reopen amid the pandemic — and one regional chain's eight-page document painstakingly detailing what that entails is being criticized by some servers and staff as "not possible," "impractical" and "exhausting."
Here are some of the procedures staff at O'Charley's restaurants have to follow:
Temperature checks for every guest and employee before they enter.
Question every guest about potential COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to the coronavirus.
Ask people to take their food from the server trays themselves — and put it back on the trays when they're done.
If they don't want to do that, the server needs to place and remove the plates using "whatever means possible to distance themselves."
Servers have to replace their gloves every time they service another table.
They have to wash their hands before replacing the gloves.
They have to wash their hands after handling money.
They have to wash their hands after every credit card transaction.
They have to wash their hands every time they return to the dining room.
A server at an O'Charley's restaurant in Tennessee that reopened Thursday said very little of this is actually happening because of the lack of staff and resources.
"I don't think we should have opened," the server, who did not wish to be identified for fear of losing her job, told BuzzFeed News. "There’s no possible way for us employees to do what they're asking us to do. It's just not possible."
The server said "we're not doing the social distancing thing."
"I can't be 6 feet away," she said, referring to customers.
She said she is wearing gloves and a mask, but the "masks we’re using are the ones we pretty much made ourselves."
She handles all the money in the restaurant and said it was impossible to wash her hands after every transaction.
Servers are not replacing their gloves every time they service a different table, she said, adding, "It's not even in the back of our minds."
She said she does not have the time to wash her hands each time she runs from the kitchen to the dining room. And she said nobody's temperature is being checked because the restaurant does not have thermometers.
Other employees at O'Charley's — which has 200 locations across 17 states, and reopened 42 of its dining rooms in Georgia and Tennessee as of Thursday — also told BuzzFeed News that they thought the restaurants were reopening "prematurely" and they didn't have enough time, resources, or staff to follow the state-issued guidelines.
Roughly 6% of people who have been tested in Tennessee had a positive result for COVID-19.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, an O'Charley's spokesperson said their team "has been planning for the return of customers to our dining rooms for several weeks and tracked the evolving guidelines closely."
"As always, the health and safety of our customers and team members remains a top priority for O’Charley’s," the statement said.
The employees said they are worried about their safety, their family's safety, and members of the public as restaurants began reopening in Tennessee on Monday, the same day the state saw its biggest one-day jump in new, confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Honestly, it’s scary,” an O’Charley’s manager in Tennessee, who also did not wish to be identified for fear of losing her job, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday.
“I don’t believe we are prepared to open,” she said. “And I don’t believe we’re able to follow the mandates.”
The server said the restaurant gave employees about two days' time to be prepared to come back on the schedule.
"We're running on a skeleton crew and it's not possible to do what we're supposed to do," she said. On Saturday morning, she said there were only two servers, including herself, at the restaurant.
The server said she hadn't seen or been provided with the eight-page compliance document. At a staff meeting, she said employees were made to watch a 10-minute "serve safe" video, but she said most employees didn't have the volume turned up on their phones.
"I didn't even watch it," the server said. "We had to play the video to show that we watched it during the meeting, but I couldn't even tell you what was on the video."
The manager said she was sent the compliance document only two days before her branch reopened on Thursday. At a teleconference the day before, the mandates were read out to all the store managers, but there was no opportunity for questions, the manager said. Instead, they were asked to email their questions.
“I believe it’s too late for that,” she said. “We’re opening prematurely and the list is exhausting. And we’re not ready.”
Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Lee released the guidelines last week as part of his “Tennessee Pledge” plan for reopening businesses in 89 of the state’s 95 counties.
“Tennesseans pulled together to flatten the curve, and it is time for people to begin to get back to work and back to their businesses,” Lee said in a statement at the time.
“We are pursuing a careful, measured approach to reopening our economy that does not depend on heavy-handed mandates but instead provides practical tools for businesses of all sizes,” he said.
The O'Charley's server said it was "not a good call" to reopen restaurants in the state.
"They haven't waited long enough for the pandemic to slow down," she said. "There's a lot of people who are nervous."
BuzzFeed News was provided with O’Charley’s compliance document that lists the state's reopening mandates and the procedures to follow them.
The state’s guidelines require restaurants to screen all guests and employees for possible COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the premises.
The O'Charley's document suggests that the “best practice” would be on-site temperature checks for every guest and employee.
Both the server and manager said their restaurant had not been provided with thermometers. The document suggests that the "minimum requirement" would be for employees to take their own temperature before arriving at work, but the manager said she doesn’t personally own a thermometer and it would take her days to have one delivered.
If temperature checks are not possible, the minimum requirement would be to station a "masked/gloved" guest assistant at the door, who would ask guests a series of questions about possible symptoms and exposure to COVID-19 before they entered.
But the manager said she had very limited staffing during the pandemic and no time to train someone to be a “guest assistant.”
“This is a new position they’ve created,” the manager said. “I’m not sure who that person is right now. I’m not sure if we even have that person.”
She said that on Wednesday’s conference call, managers were told that the company was trying to source alcohol prep pads and thermometers for the restaurants.
Another state mandate calls for increasing “physical space” between restaurant staff and guests.
"We're just not doing the 6 feet apart, I can tell you that," the server said.
Even though the tables themselves are 6 feet apart, "as a server, I'm still going up to people to serve them," she said.
The mandate says servers should ask guests to remove their food from tray holders placed by the side of the table and to place their plates on the trays by the table side after they finish their meals.
“If the Guest declines, Server is to use whatever means possible to distance themselves from the Guest when placing plates in front of Guests,” the guidelines said.
The O'Charley's server said the requirement of asking guests to serve themselves using tray jacks "is not happening."
"Half of our food is being run out by only one server so we don't have the time to put a tray jack up or we run out of tray jacks," she said.
"We're just serving customers normally except we're wearing masks and gloves," she said.
She also said it was not possible for the employees to maintain social distancing among themselves.
There are five or six cooks on a 13-feet long line in the kitchen and "there's no way for them to be 6 feet apart," the server said.
“I don’t know if you’ve worked in a restaurant, but that’s just impractical,” the O'Charley's manager said.
A manager at a different O’Charley’s branch in Tennessee told BuzzFeed News that at least 50% of guests who visited the restaurant after it reopened on Monday did not keep 6 feet apart and refused to follow the arrows on the floor to maintain social distancing requirements — despite the staff urging them to.
The other manager, who also did not want to be identified for fear of losing her job, said she had some “difficult tables” where the customers declined to remove their food from the trays, telling the servers, “you’re supposed to be serving us.”
“Well, OK, but we’re living in new times,” the manager said.
The server said she was not washing her hands every time she returned to the dining room from the kitchen because of the time constraints.
"If a person asks me for a side of ranch, I'm going to go to the kitchen, grab the ranch, and bring it back to the guest, instead of stopping, taking off the gloves, washing my hands, going back to find a new pair of gloves, put them back on, grab the ranch, and bring it back to them," she said. "It's just not feasible."
The server said she also wasn't replacing her gloves every time she had to service another table.
"I don't think anybody's been thinking about it because we're so overwhelmed with what we have to do and the amount of work we have to put in making the restaurant run," she said.
While running six or seven tables by herself, she said she had changed her gloves a few times whenever she remembered to do it.
"But we're doing a three-person job as one person," she said. "When you think about changing your gloves every time you service one table to the next, it's not even in the back of our mind."
One guideline said staff should social distance at meetings and wear face coverings at all times.
But the first manager told BuzzFeed News that at a staff meeting on Tuesday — two days before the restaurant opened — everyone was sitting at the same table and there was “no social distancing being practiced and no face masks being worn.”
“If we’re not requiring face masks to be worn at a meeting where we’re discussing the importance of wearing masks, then I’m just concerned for my own personal safety, and that of my family’s and the entire team that works here,” she said.
She said the restaurant had not provided face masks to employees.
“At one point, the general manager’s wife, who is not an employee, made us masks out of home supplies,” she said. “They were provided to us but were gone within a day or two.”
The other manager said she was “highly concerned” about the safety of her team members, especially some who have health issues in their family and are “super scared about coming into work.”
She said while most of the sales came from to-go orders, her restaurant had about 30% of the dining room full after it reopened on Monday.
"I anticipate that with the government's stimulus checks, people will be eating out," the first manager said. "This area recently had a tornado so we've had a lot of people eating out right now, more so than usual."
Both O’Charley’s managers said they agreed with the decision to reopen restaurants in the state, but they needed more time and resources to prepare for it.
“The list they made is just very impractical,” the first manager said. “I think with more preparation, this could have been done and done well.”
“We’re definitely not prepared,” the other manager said. “Retraining staff while trying to run a business is very difficult.”
"They’re asking us to be back in public, but we’re not getting the proper resources," the server said. "We should have waited until we were fully staffed so that we could properly do what we’re supposed to do."
In its statement to BuzzFeed News, O'Charley's said, "While reopening guidelines vary state to state and even city to city, we have worked diligently to train our team members to be fully compliant with all federal, state and local health mandates. Multiple team members are monitoring those requirements to ensure we meet both government and customer expectations with detailed protocols and procedures.”
Some Tennessee restaurants, like the Main Street Pizza Company, chose not to reopen despite the governor’s assurance that “safe economic recovery is supported by data showing Tennessee’s curve of novel coronavirus infections hitting a plateau.”
“We WILL NOT BE OPENING OUR DINING ROOMS until the science says it is much safer,” the Main Street Pizza Company said in a Facebook post. “When the second wave hits in three weeks because of this fool-hearty [sic] decision making, please remember which businesses had your back. Hair salons/tattoo parlors/retail etc., should do the same, and wait. Just because someone tells you you can, doesn't mean you should,” the restaurant said.