When it comes to reopening businesses in the midst of a pandemic, there’s much disagreement between local, state, and national leaders over what is necessary for businesses to reopen and resume operations in the new normal.
As far as restaurants go, it’s been largely on the businesses themselves — and the customers — to make their own decisions to protect themselves and diners. In addition to other preventative measures like taking staff temperatures before they come to work and requiring the use of masks, TJ’s Seafood owner Jon Alexis is focused intently on testing staff for COVID-19 infections.
To that end, Alexis teamed up with Dr. Nick Karr, who operates Sinai Urgent Care in the Park Cities, and business partner Zach Nathan to form a new company called Safework, which will provide ongoing testing to workers at businesses like TJ’s as the pandemic continues.
“Testing is a really good way to open your business safely and mitigate the risk that the headline isn’t going to be that the next outbreak is at my restaurant,” Alexis says. “I wanna get my business up and running, and I wanna get every business up and running.” Alexis says that his restaurant group is the first in DFW to provide comprehensive testing for its employees, with TJ’s Seafood serving as one of the guinea pigs for the service.
Here’s how the on-site testing works: A restaurant or business owner reaches out to Safework, which provides that owner with access to a portal where the employees can consent to COVID-19 testing. Then, the company brings out medical professionals to conduct the tests on-site, and results are privately communicated back to the employees. The employer pays for the testing, and Alexis describes it as a “benefit” that restaurants can offer to their employees, many of whom don’t have health insurance coverage and may struggle to obtain testing on their own.
“People are scared to work, so this helps alleviate that,” Alexis says. “It’s not, ‘Do I do the health thing or the economy thing?’ There’s a way to do both.”
As far as I know...TJ's & Malibu Poke are the first restaurant group in DFW to begin regularly testing our staff for COVID-19 infection. Our job is to make sure our team is safe and you feel safe coming in. We used SafeWork Onsite Workforce COVID19 Testing services (please see more info & disclaimer below). Due to HIPPA laws i can't tell you the results, but use common sense to figure out if I'd be bragging about this had we hypthetically had anything other than 100% clean test results. TJ's dining rooms are not quite open, although we have some creative plans for next weekend. But when we open, you will feel 100% safe in our restaurants.Posted by Jon Alexis on Friday, May 8, 2020
At present, Safework’s structure makes the most sense for larger employees with hundreds of employees to test, but the company is currently thinking up strategies to get these tests to smaller, independent restaurants that are operating on shoestring budgets. “We are talking to some restaurant organizations about doing a big event with smaller restaurants getting together to test,” Alexis says. At present, SafeWork is already in contact with more than 75 companies in the DFW area to implement mobile COVID-19 testing at those workplaces.
Even though it seems a little weird for a restaurateur like Alexis to jump into a business in the medical field, it actually makes some sense. “In the restaurant industry, we have the hardest job amongst everybody: We are touching things you put in your mouth,” he says. “I sell people raw fish. I’ve been in the prove-you’re-not-going-to-make-me-sick business my entire career. We think of our restaurants like a hospital. We’re constantly disinfecting; we spend thousands of dollars on gloves; and it feels totally normal to be ‘extra’ when it comes to being clean.”
Even with testing, Alexis recognizes that going “back to normal” may not be possible. “There’s going to be a demand from customers now that’s like, ‘What do you do? How do you touch my food? I wanna know,’” he says. “We just want to try to lead by doing what we think a restaurant should look like at the end of all this. We were playing chess, and then the board got flipped over. This is my best guess. I’m not trying to act like I know everything.”