Employer Frustration Mounts Over Covid Testing Delays

When an employee at Cornerstone Pub and Restaurant in Baileys Harbor tested positive for the COVID-19 virus Tuesday, the restaurant’s owners closed immediately. They posted on Facebook that they would follow the “Husby’s Protocol,” asking all employees to get a negative test or quarantine before returning to work. 

But they immediately ran into a problem that businesses are facing nationwide: Who needs to get tested, and how long will it take to get the results back?

“We’re told our workers don’t need to get tests except for two employees who came in close contact with the infected person,” said manager Matthew Koehler. 

According to the Door County Public Health Department, close contact is considered to be anyone who was within six feet of the infected person for 15 minutes or more, and that is cumulative throughout the day. Close contact also includes if you hugged, shared a drink with, or were otherwise in close contact with an infected individual. 

Koehler said health department staff questioned why he decided to close, given that only two employees would have to quarantine. 

“COVID doesn’t come down in a bomb,” said Door County Public Health Manager Sue Powers during a phone call Monday to discuss the contact-tracing process. “If there’s one person at a business, it doesn’t mean everybody at that business has been exposed.” 

Powers and her staff are working on a new toolkit for business owners to help guide them in what to expect if an employee tests positive and guide them on how to respond. 

Koehler and Cornerstone owner Paul Salm said officials are out of touch with the reality on the ground at northern Door County restaurants this summer.

“There’s twice as many tourists, and nobody’s staffed,” Koehler said. “My employees are in a small building five, six, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. You can’t tell me that doesn’t qualify as close contact. All those people should have to be tested.”

So with thin staffing, many restaurants can’t afford to lose even a couple of employees while still continuing to operate in an environment that’s more labor intensive than ever, with more cleaning, takeout orders and running to far-flung outdoor tables. 

In addition, even if Public Health tells staff they don’t need to quarantine or get tested, Koehler said many of them would choose to do so anyway.

“Our staff is young. Nobody cares if they get it, but to a man, they’ve said they don’t want to be the one who gives it to someone,” he said. “It’s Door County. We live on retirees.”

At Husby’s, owners ran into the same issues. The bar ultimately closed for five and a half days in the middle of July while owners waited for enough staff to get negative test results to be allowed to return to work.

As of Wednesday, Powers said test results were coming back in about six days on average. For those who have come in close contact with an infected person, a negative test result doesn’t give them the all clear. 

“If you were in close contact with an infected individual, a negative test doesn’t mean you end your quarantine,” she said. “You should still quarantine yourself for the full 14 days of the incubation period.”

Koehler said his employee stopped working as soon as symptoms were experienced, but the infectious period for COVID-19 is assumed to begin two days before those symptoms start. The employee then waited eight days for test results. The Centers for Disease Control says the incubation period for COVID-19 is 14 days, leaving six days of quarantine remaining for those employees who came in close contact.

Others who were not deemed to have been in close contact would have to lie about symptoms to get tested because Door County Medical Center is not testing asymptomatic individuals, except for health care workers. 

As cases increase, demands grow on Public Health Office 

After the case reported at Husby’s, Powers said her office was deluged by requests for tests – some less warranted than others. 

“Some people called the hotline and said, ‘I live in Sister Bay, so I should be tested,’” she said. 

As cases increase, the demands on her office grow. Powers said she has a staff of five who can perform contact tracing, but that tracing has become more difficult with this summer’s cases. 

“With each case we follow up on, it seems there are more and more contacts to follow up on,” she said. “Because people are simply not staying home and limiting their exposure to others. They’re not masking. At the start of this, when we called people, they said they’ve been home and haven’t done anything. There was little contact tracing involved. Now it’s completely the opposite. Everyone has 10-20 close contacts. No wonder the disease is on the rise.”

Powers said each contact-tracing interview lasts at least 20 minutes, but some go much longer. Recently her staff has run into more dead ends from contacts who don’t want to share information and don’t want to quarantine. In some cases, she has had to issue a written isolation order. 

Contact tracing has been made more difficult by scammers who pose as contact tracers and attempt to steal credit card information to pay for a test. A legitimate contact tracer will not offer to sell you a test, only direct you to a facility where you can obtain one. 

Business closures increase

Cornerstone and Husby’s are just the latest businesses to close in response to positive COVID tests. 

Sunset Shores Resort in Baileys Harbor closed until Aug. 9 after guests who had stayed at the resort tested positive upon returning home. The owners do not believe the guests contracted the virus at the resort, but they closed to clean and sanitize the resort anyway. 

At Sweetie Pies in Fish Creek, owner Olivia Lowery announced on Facebook that the bake shop would close while her family quarantines as it awaits test results for her family’s young children. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, the county reported 17 active cases of COVID-19 and 83 total positive tests, with 261 tests pending. Kewaunee County reports 105 positive tests, and Brown County reports 3,822.