What does being listed on a state COVID-19 “watch list” actually mean to a restaurant?

While it might be something for a potential customer to consider, it could also be a trapdoor for a business, even one following all safety precautions.

“It’s meant a significant impact to our business and it is large enough to lead to immediate layoffs,” said a worried Kam Talebi, after it was reported that his Crave American Kitchen & Sushi Bar in downtown Rochester was on the Minnesota Department of Health’s COVID-19 watch list.

Being on the list means people who have tested positive for COVID-19 told public health officials that they had visited the restaurant within 30 days of testing positive. While the list is public information, it is not posted online and is only available by special request.

Three other Rochester eateries -- Dooley’s Pub, Texas Roadhouse and Whistle Binkies on the Lake -- were also on the watch list.

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A statewide news agency, Bring Me The News, recently published an article about the list. The Post Bulletin followed that coverage on Monday with a news story and Crave felt an immediate impact as one diner after another canceled their dinner reservations.

Talebi understands the concern for safety during these times, but he defends his restaurant as following all COVID-19 protocols.

“We have had zero COVID violations… We’ve had no active staff test positive for COVID-19… The moral of the story is that this is not a hotspot,” he said. “It’s a travesty… We now have to look at laying off innocent employees for no reason whatsoever.”

In the past 30 days, Crave’s staff of about 100 has served 13,000 people in Rochester. The state reports that 10 people with COVID-19 said they visited the restaurant within the past 30 days. Nine of those cases are categorized as “unique” to Crave as the only restaurant the person visited in that time.

Talebi points out that those 10 people might have gone to a store or somewhere else during that time, but the list only focuses on restaurants and bars.

Sagar Chowdhury, Olmsted Public Health’s environmental health manager, acknowledged that being on the state list should not be considered a mark of specific danger.

“Being on the list does not mean the restaurant is unsafe -- rather they have met the criteria laid out by the Minnesota Department of Health. This is reflected in how Olmsted County enforces these establishments," wrote Chowdhury. “Most establishments placed on this list are doing everything they can to safeguard COVID risks and are openly communicating with our department. Enforcement is considered for those that are not actively managing these risks.”

He added that there are “inherent risks with any public setting” and everyone should continue to take recommended precautions such as social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks.