When the restaurateur Keith McNally reopened his Soho brasserie Balthazar in March, it was widely interpreted as a signal that the pandemic and its disastrous effects on the New York City hospitality industry were coming to an end. In the early months of the virus, one barista at the restaurant had died, and McNally himself had been hospitalized with the virus the previous year. Staff returning to the restaurant rejoiced.
But now, with the Omicron variant surging, some Balthazar workers say the restaurant isn’t doing enough to keep them safe and isn’t making them aware of the extent of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff — at least ten of whom have tested positive, by their own internal count.
On December 15, a Balthazar manager emailed workers to say that two people who had worked on December 7, 8, 9, and 10 had tested positive. “We highly recommend that you get tested, should you need help finding a testing facility, please let us know,” the manager wrote. Two days later, on December 17, the manager emailed workers again, this time to say that “several” more staffers had tested positive and had worked on December 13, 14, 15, and 16.
In a private chat, one worker texted their feelings to colleagues: “‘Several’ meaning ‘if we told you the number we’d be forced to close.’” (The restaurant’s press office hasn’t responded to my emails asking about the situation.)
Another server, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, thinks that management needs to be more transparent: “It’s just kind of crazy that they’re trying to downplay this,” this server tells me. “It’s like they don’t care at all — they’re not trying to get us tested or shut down the restaurant for even a day … it’s bizarre.”
After waiting in a three-hour line at a pop-up testing center one recent morning, the server tested negative, then proceeded to work a ten-hour shift.
While numerous restaurants in New York City have closed in recent days, sometimes citing just one or two positive cases on staff, the 300-plus full- and part-time team at Balthazar has continued to work apace. This summer, the restaurant abandoned its temporary plexiglass barriers to return to full dining capacity — 160 to 182 seats indoors, and 120 to 150 outdoors — and has recently been crowded with holiday tourists.
“You’re wearing an N95 you don’t want to take off for ten hours, and they have this Christmas music playing like nothing’s happening,” the server explains. “It’s this weird dystopian world — like a holly jolly time, but we’re all scared for our lives.”
Meanwhile, managers are calling staff to entice them to work more shifts in exchange for the promise of free food. “They ordered pizza and doughnuts and said, ‘We really need you, order anything off the menu,” the server reveals. “They called us over to a corner to eat the free food, which is pretty ironic considering that, you know, it’s this small little corner where everyone would be unmasked to eat their bribes.”
In the group chat, another worker told colleagues, “Pizza or not, they need to at least take tables away, put the partitions back.” This person added, “I mean shit, they got them all detailed, might as well use them.”
The worker also recommended closing the bar: “There’s only three bartenders left anyway.”
Another vaccinated and boosted server at the restaurant, who recently tested positive for COVID and is in quarantine with mild symptoms, says they don’t blame Balthazar for remaining open or workers for continuing to come in. “People don’t want to lose their jobs,” they said. “They’re out of sick hours, and they don’t feel well, but if they’re testing negative, they don’t feel like they have a choice. That’s a common sentiment across the board among service industry people.”
“They’re going to keep working until they can’t,” this server continues. “That’s not necessarily Balthazar’s fault. It’s a systemic problem.”
McNally, for his part, is aware of the situation. He posted about it on Instagram, his preferred mode of communication, on Monday afternoon, sharing an email from a manager who told him more than a third of staff was out for Sunday brunch, but that others had stepped up to fill in.
“Kudos to your staff,” read one reply. “That said, a huge outbreak and passing on the virus is not a good plan going forward. How ARE you going to deal with this??? Are you limiting capacity to help make the restaurant safer for staff and guests? Are you putting together a testing plan? … Lead the way. Other restaurants will follow.”
McNally’s response? That, too, was posted to Instagram: “FUCK OFF.”
However, after this story was first published, management from McNally’s restaurants sent a note to employees to announce a new mandatory testing policy:
PUBLIC MEMO TO ALL STAFF
Effective immediately, in the interest of everyone’s health and wellbeing, the restaurants are instituting a weekly COVID testing policy for all employees. Your personal health information is of the utmost importance to us and will be kept in confidence in line with Hippa/privacy guidelines. We will have a testing company on site this Thursday, December 23rd, and once a week thereafter TBD. We will be offering the PCR test which has a relatively quick turnaround time and possibly a rapid test when appropriate. You may take a test at a facility of your choosing or test on site at Balthazar or Morandi. Regardless of where you take the test, everyone must have it done and submit the result weekly (for clarity, your test date must be no more than every 7th day from your last test date).
This story has been updated to include information relating to the restaurants’ new testing policy.