Around 1,100 hospitality workers in Lawrence complete monthly COVID-19 tests as part of collaboration with hospital, health department
photo by: Seth Sanchez
A collaboration among three Lawrence organizations has resulted in a robust COVID-19 testing program aimed at finding asymptomatic cases among community members who often interact with strangers.
In December, the Lawrence Restaurant Association partnered with LMH Health and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health to begin surveillance testing of hospitality workers. According to Emily Peterson, chair of the Lawrence Restaurant Association, 45 Lawrence businesses — including restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries and event spaces — are now participating in the program. Those 45 businesses have around 1,100 staff members who are tested monthly.
Ruaa Hassaballa, the health department’s COVID Testing Equity Project manager, said the program was mutually beneficial.
“This is a really great way to keep our community safe and to also share with the community that restaurants are doing what they can to ensure safety in their businesses,” Hassaballa said.
The program started because the county was able to purchase 32,000 COVID-19 test kits through CARES Act funding and was seeking ways to leverage them in the community, according to Brian Bradfield, associate vice president of ancillary services at LMH Health. LMH Health and the health department reached out to the Lawrence Restaurant Association, who was interested in partnering and using some of the tests.
The testing program started in December and, at first, participating businesses tested 25% of their employees every two weeks. As the program has continued, more businesses have joined, and testing has ramped up. Now, 50% of employees are tested every two weeks, meaning 100% of participating employees are tested monthly.
“It provides assurance really for the staff and, by extension, the guests as well, to know that those concerns are being very scientifically assessed and monitored,” said Chuck Magerl, owner of Free State Brewing Company and a member of the Lawrence Restaurant Association leadership team. Free State is in charge of distributing the testing kits to other participating businesses in Lawrence.
Leslie Smith, a manager and waitress at Free State, said she has appreciated the testing program since its inception. Her two young children sometimes come into contact with family members who are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, so she said it was nice to get tested frequently.
Smith said she didn’t mind doing the saliva test and that she typically found out her results in about a day and a half.
Once hospitality businesses realized the high quality of the tests and the rapidity of the results, many received more confidence about the program, Magerl said. And “once restaurant employees recognized they were being attended to in the testing protocol, it gave them assurance they would also be attended to in vaccination proceedings,” he said.
Peterson, the chair of the Lawrence Restaurant Association, said that in six weeks, 2,989 food service workers received the vaccine. Each week, the number of food services workers receiving vaccines has increased. The week of Feb. 3, for example, 255 vaccines were allotted to this group. The week of March 8, 815 vaccines were allotted to the group. There are 1,351 food service workers remaining on the vaccine interest form who have not received their first dose, health department spokesperson George Diepenbrock said.
Magerl and Peterson said the relationship between restaurant owners and health leaders has improved since the start of the pandemic.
“I would say we probably didn’t have a lot of interaction before this,” Peterson said. “Now we’ve got these great collaborations.”
In addition to the testing program, the Lawrence Restaurant Association has been collaborating with LMH Health and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health to provide food for volunteers at vaccine clinics. Peterson said a different Lawrence restaurant has provided meals for about 150 volunteers every week, and that the restaurant receives a stipend from the health department. Earlier this year, Papa Keno’s and Merchants also loaned heaters for some vaccine clinics.
Peterson also said it was a “relief” when the county removed its operating hour restrictions last week for restaurants and bars. Throughout the pandemic, restaurants and bars were closed and then were given restricted operating hours. Restaurants must still operate at half capacity and adhere to social distancing and mask requirements.
The Lawrence Restaurant Association created a hospitality relief fund last year. They raised and have granted $232,000 to 735 hospitality workers who were underemployed or unemployed because of the pandemic. Peterson said they were able to raise the money through private donations and grants from the Douglas County Community Foundation. The Lawrence Restaurant Association is currently seeking more money to grant funds to 75 people who they have not yet been able to serve. Anyone who would like to support the hospitality relief fund may do so online at lawrencerestaurantassociation.com/donate.
Peterson said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of restaurants in Lawrence. She said she was hopeful Lawrence restaurants would be able to benefit from some grants in the new stimulus package, and she’s happy that community health is heading in the right direction.
“I think we are all hopeful and just kind of carefully, incrementally expanding operations to make sure we are doing it in a safe and measured way,” she said.