Guides / What To Do if an Employee Tests Positive: Creating a COVID Response Plan

What To Do if an Employee Tests Positive: Creating a COVID Response Plan

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A positive COVID-19 case or exposure in your restaurant can be a scary prospect, and it could occur even if you are implementing proper safety and sanitation protocols. Creating a plan beforehand can help reduce anxiety, as well as allow you to continue to operate smoothly while keeping both your staff and customers safe. We’ve compiled information from the CDC and the National Restaurant Association to inform a list of best practices to help you develop the right response plan for your restaurant.

How to prepare for a positive case

Don’t wait for a positive test to think about how your restaurant will respond. From creating a closing plan, to making sure your staff is informed and prepared, here are five key steps to take before an employee tests positive for COVID-19. 

1. Review local rules and regulations

Start by reviewing your local government’s rules and regulations. Some states, like Massachusetts, require that restaurants must shut down for at least 24 hours after an employee tests positive for COVID-19. In other regions, it is only a recommendation. 

In addition to requiring a temporary closure, some local governments require that employers support employees who contract COVID-19. In the United States, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes provisions that require paid sick leave for employees impacted by COVID-19. You can read more about that act and its impact on the restaurant industry in QSR’s article, “A Ten Point Plan for Restaurant Employers During COVID-19 Crisis.” 

2. Create a closing plan

the event of a positive case, many restaurants are opting to temporarily close the restaurant. This can give you time to deep clean and perform staff contact tracing, as well as give your guests the peace of mind that you are taking their safety seriously. Communicate the closure with your customer and staff, and make sure to cancel any existing reservations. 

Pro tip: For help closing your restaurant, 86Repairs created a checklist of everything you need to do temporarily close your kitchen. 

3. Be ready to pivot to off-premise

After deep cleaning and following your local regulations, consider keeping your restaurant open for takeout and delivery only. For help on setting up your takeout and delivery program, check out our guide on optimizing your off-premise business.

4. Draft a customer communication statement

The Winchester restaurant in Grand Rapids, MI, made the decision to be open and honest from the beginning when they had an employee test positive. The restaurant quickly shared a statement on social media and their website letting customers know they had a positive case, and that they were temporarily shutting down for deep cleaning. Responding quickly and transparently showed their customers that they were on top of safety, and built trust with the local community. When The Winchester reopened, instead of diners staying away out of fear, they saw a swell in traffic and support.

Your statement should include:

  • News of the positive case, when the staff member last worked, and their potential exposure date 
  • If any additional staff is undergoing testing or self isolation 
  • Reporting of the case to your local health department
  • The steps you are taking to clean and sanitize your establishment
  • How you will continue to prioritize your customer’s health and safety
  • Your estimated reopening date if you close
  • How customers can order takeout and delivery if you remain open for off-premise dining
  • A thank you to your customers for their support!

For more examples of statements made by restaurants, check out this article by WZZM.

5. Keep your staff in the loop

To minimize confusion, your staff should know how you plan to respond to a positive COVID test, as well as what support they will receive from your restaurant. Send out an email, or host a virtual staff meeting, ensuring you cover everything in your employee response policy, as well as next steps for the restaurant. This will minimize panic and confusion in the moment, and allow everyone to feel safe and secure proceeding forward. 

Learn more about staff health and safety at

Create and share an employee response policy

A vital part of your COVID response is making sure your staff know what to do if they are exposed or test positive for COVID-19.

What your policy should include:

Make sure a copy of the response plan is distributed to all employees at your company, whether physically or via email, and leave space for staff to ask any questions.

Responding to a COVID exposure and/or positive test

What to do if an employee is exposed to COVID-19

If an employee has been exposed to coronavirus, but is not yet showing symptoms, the National Restaurant Association outlined the following options

Have the employee stay home for the recommended 14 day period after exposure 


Have the employee return to work and require face masks, temperature checks, and six feet of social distancing. Exposed employees should also monitor symptoms using the CDC’s Coronavirus Self Checker

If an employee begins to exhibit symptoms, they should be sent home immediately.

What to do if an employee is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms

If the employee is currently working and exhibits coronavirus symptoms, they should be sent home immediately, avoiding public transportation. 

If the employee is at home and exhibits coronavirus symptoms, designate who employees should contact--whether it is the manager on duty or your food and safety manager

Employees with symptoms should schedule a test as soon as possible or reach out to their health care provider, and follow the CDC’s recommendations for what to do when sick. 

Don’t forget to let the employee know how you will support them, including how to access paid leave or health benefits. 

What to do if an employee test positive for COVID-19

Notify all employees of a positive case, and begin contact tracing. 

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, identify any co-workers in close contact with the employee in the last two weeks, either by asking the employee or reviewing shift schedules. Close contact is defined as within six feet for more than 15 minutes. Contact all employees who were in close contact with the infected person, and require that they follow proper exposure protocol. 

And don’t forget: It’s required to notify your local health officials of all cases of COVID-19 among staff.

Returning to work

Asymptomatic employees or employees should not return to work until the 14 day self isolation period is over. Sick employees should wait until 3 days without fever have passed without the use of fever-reducing medications, or meet the CDC’s requirements for discontinuation of isolation.

Depending on local rules and regulations, you may also require a negative COVID-10 test, or medical clearance note. 

Continue to temperature check upon their return to work, and send employees home immediately if symptoms re-appear.

Hold your staff accountable 

A safe environment is a two-way street

You can follow all of the CDC’s guidelines and procedures in the restaurant, but if your staff aren’t following the CDC’s recommended social distancing guidelines in their personal life, they can put your restaurant at risk. 

In order to create a safe environment for both employees and customers, staff must clearly understand expectations of their behavior both inside and outside of the workplace. 

In the workplace, that starts with distributing a copy of your COVID-19 response plan, and making sure every employee follows your guidelines while working. Outside of the workplace, that means making sure your employees understand how their behavior can increase the spread of COVID-19.  

Emphasize the importance of wearing masks, washing hands, maintaining six feet of distance, and large gatherings. Let your employees know beforehand how these measures will be enforced, and what the consequences are if they are found putting themselves and others at risk.