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Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town

Etta Staffers Test Positive For Coronavirus, But Restaurant Owner Says Closing Is Not An Option

Etta co-owner David Pisor defended his decision to stay open. "If someone gets it, [we] move them out. ... It's something we've been able to smartly handle."

Etta at 1840 W. North Ave. in Wicker Park/Bucktown
Alisa Hauser/Block Club Chicago
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BUCKTOWN — Employees at popular Bucktown restaurant Etta are raising the alarm after multiple workers tested positive for coronavirus.

Employees, who spoke to Block Club on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said at least three workers have tested positive for coronavirus at the 1840 W. North Ave. location since last Wednesday. An additional two workers were awaiting results Friday.

In a statement provided to Block Club, co-owner David Pisor acknowledged the restaurant has had “a few” COVID cases but would not say how many or when those workers became infected. Pisor said the company has experienced some false positive results, but would not elaborate further.

Staffers told Block Club they’re concerned about their own safety and that of their customers. Some workers said they rotate shifts at three different restaurants owned by the What If Syndicate restaurant group: Etta in Bucktown, Etta in River North and Maple & Ash in the Gold Coast.

City regulations do not require a restaurant to shut down after a COVID-19 exposure. But other restaurants across the city have temporarily closed for cleaning and testing after staff tested positive for the virus.

The allegations came to light in a series of posts published Thursday and Friday in an anonymous Instagram account titled “Etta Has Covid.”

“They are not completely open and transparent,” one staffer said. “We are all struggling to know anything about what’s happening.”

Employers must notify staff after a positive COVID-19 test, Rosa Escareno, commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said earlier this month.

If an outbreak is linked to a business, the city’s department of public health and Commissioner Allison Arwady has the power to close a business, Escareno said.

Pisor denied restaurant leadership wasn’t openly communicating about the situation. He said once a positive case is discovered, the entire staff is informed and the infected staffer is ordered to quarantine for 14 days or until they have a negative test result.

“If someone gets it, [we] move them out,” Pisor said. “Everybody that’s had it with us has shown no symptoms. It’s good that they’re all young and healthy.”

Pisor said he feels the issue is not widespread.

“Etta River North has over 100 employees,” he said. “It’s turned out we have one or two cases every now and then. It’s something we’ve been able to smartly handle.”

Earlier this month, Big Star in Wicker Park and Recess in Fulton Market closed after staffers contracted the virus. Both companies immediately tested their employees, deep-cleaned the restaurants and told customers about the issue in social media posts.

Last month, Replay Andersonville closed after a server at the tested positive. Lincoln Park’s Galit, one of the participants in the neighborhood’s outdoor dining program, also closed when a worker tested positive. So did an Alinea pop-up in West Loop. Before that, Logan Square’s Longman & Eagle shut down for the same reason, as well as Fork in Lincoln Square.

All restaurants had safety measures in place for workers and diners, but workers still contracted the virus. Business owners said it’s an unfortunate reality if they want to stay afloat during the pandemic.

“We should all expect it at some point, that someone tests positive,” Replay owner Mark Liberson told Block Club. “By being intelligent about it, we can live with the virus.”

Closing down Etta is not financially feasible for the What If restaurant group, Pisor said.

Staying open enables the company to offer health insurance to hundreds of employees and provide meals and supplies to workers who are still furloughed and unable to access government benefits, Pisor said.

Pisor said the company also invested $20,000 to test staff every two weeks at its restaurants in Chicago and in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“We are not making any money. We’re losing money. Some weeks we’re breaking even,” he said. “This business really beats the s— out of us. I hope that we’re able to stay relevant and open because many, many other restaurants are never going to reopen. This is going to devastate our industry for years and years.”

Given the lag in testing results, Pisor said he does not believe restaurants have an obligation to alert the public when they’ve had a positive case.

“We don’t have any way to track it,” he said. “I go in and I get a test, it takes me four days to get results back. … From the stand point of knowing what’s going on … I have no clue. If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t go out to eat. You could be getting COVID anywhere.”

While public officials and restaurant owners have acknowledged it’s improbable to completely eliminate the chance of infection while dining out or socializing, staff members said transparency is important.

“I think this is a pivotal time for the restaurant industry,” another staffer said. “We have a responsibility to show up for each other and our guests and keep people safe.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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