Local Restaurants Seek Support To Pay for Employee COVID-19 Tests

As Lisbon’s restaurants adapt to a second state of emergency, they face a unique dilemma: If one employee contracts COVID-19, who will pay to test the rest of the staff?

Portugal’s hospitality industry is having a tough year. Between mandatory closures, a sudden drop in tourism, and constantly changing restrictions on hours and capacity, it’s no simple task for locally owned restaurants to keep their doors open.

Amid all this chaos, every small business faces yet another challenge: If one employee tests positive for COVID-19, who’s going to pay for the rest of the staff to get tested?

At the moment, there’s no financial support system in place for restaurants that are dealing with a confirmed case among the staff. The responsibility for testing falls on each business — and for some, it could spell disaster.

Solar dos Presuntos, a famed local restaurant in Lisbon’s city center, has firsthand experience with this issue. In October, one of its 50 employees tested positive for COVID-19. The restaurant’s management chose to test the rest of the staff, and detected four more positive cases. They decided to close immediately for at least five days of quarantine.

During that time, two more employees developed symptoms and tested positive. After five days the restaurant tested every employee again, and found 10 more positive cases. At this point, Portugal’s Direção-Geral da Saúde (DGS) said it could reopen with the staff that tested negative, as they had been in quarantine and were not at risk of infection.

Solar dos Presuntos paid around €120 for each COVID-19 test. It tested all 50 employees twice, for a total of about €12,000 in testing costs.

In a statement to Atlas, a representative from the restaurant said that they received no financial help from the government, and had to seek out guidelines regarding how to proceed. “We made our case public and no one from DGS contacted us or told us to close. We did that because we knew it was the right thing to do. We felt lost, but we knew we couldn’t risk our clients, families, etc.,” said the representative.

“We know other places that keep working even with COVID cases. But who can blame them? How can these businesses pay €120 per test if they are going through a crisis? How can they close for five days of quarantine?

“For us, it’s surreal. We understand that the system is overloaded with cases, but a restaurant saying it has multiple cases should be taken very, very seriously. It shouldn’t be the restaurant going after answers or paying [for] these tests,” the representative continued.

Since reopening, Solar dos Presuntos has continued to test its entire team once a week with serological tests — which detect antibodies — without any support from the government. For them, “testing is the ultimate prevention and safety guarantee, but it can’t depend on us. We also need help.”

Atlas reached out to DGS for comments, but did not receive a response in time for publication. The organization did release a set of guidelines for restaurants in May, which included the following points: 

  • “Employees who develop signs or symptoms indicative of COVID-19 should not go to their place of work, and should contact the SNS24 Line (808 24 24 24) or other phone lines created specifically for this purpose, and proceed according to the instructions provided.”
  • “Employees who develop signs or symptoms indicative of COVID-19 during their work shift should be considered Suspected Cases and directed to the isolation area, in accordance with the Contingency Plan.”

The “Contingency Plan” refers to Orientação n.º 006/2020, a DGS document that outlines the procedure companies should follow if an employee develops COVID-19 symptoms. This document states that any employee with a suspected case should be tested for the virus, but does not include information about who should pay for this test.

It also does not specify that the business should close its doors — but this may be related to the fact that the guidelines are directed at all businesses, not just those that have close contact with the public (such as restaurants). In addition, Orientação n.º 006/2020 was published in late February, before the extent of the pandemic’s effects became clear.

In a press bulletin on October 20, AHRESP (the Portuguese Association for Hotels and Restaurants) called for government support in order to cover the cost of COVID testing.

“The State should make tests freely available for businesses, especially those that deal directly with the public, as is the case for tourist accommodation, restaurants and similar areas. In addition to contributing to consumer trust, this measure would allow for the identification of positive cases and prevent the exponential spread of the illness,” AHRESP stated.

The association also reported that, in some cases, hospitality employees who test positive for COVID-19 are allowed to return to work after just 10 days of isolation, without the need for a negative test result. This policy is confirmed by Norma 004/2020 from DGS. 

AHRESP communicated their concern with this rule to various other industry groups and requested an urgent meeting with DGS to discuss it, among other issues.

The meeting took place during the first week of November, according to a bulletin published on November 10. During the meeting, DGS agreed to update Orientação n.º 006/202 and review AHRESP’s guide to best practices for reopening bars and restaurants, which they published in May.

On November 11, the Câmara Municipal de Lisboa announced a new set of economic and social support measures for local businesses and restaurants, to help offset losses due to the new state of emergency.

AHRESP summarized the measures that will affect local restaurants. They include direct payments to qualifying businesses, support for the installation and improvement of restaurant terraces, and a promotional campaign for local commerce, but do not specifically address the COVID-19 testing dilemma.

Atlas asked AHRESP if any other restaurants have experienced problems with testing, but did not receive additional information. The association confirmed that it has no statistics on how many of its members have had issues with funding COVID-19 tests for employees.

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