Two weeks after workers picketed outside the restaurant over ownership’s response to an employee contracting COVID-19, Jimmy Bannos Jr.’s Purple Pig has temporarily closed after another worker contracted the virus. A spokesperson says that the worker tested positive Monday, October 19, and was asymptomatic while working their most recent shift on Saturday, October 17.
The downtown restaurant closed “out of an abundance of safety for the restaurant’s team members and guests,” according to an emailed statement. A reopening date has yet to be determined, pending staff-wide testing and a cleaning by an “antiviral remediation service.” There’s no mention of the closure on the restaurant’s social media channels.
The restaurant’s closure and commitment to staff-wide testing are new developments in its public response to the virus. Previously, when the first employee (a busser) with a confirmed case tested positive for the virus in late September, ownership chose to remain open without immediately making a public statement, spurring vehement feedback from staff that resulted in employee picketing. A statement from the restaurant reads the worker tested positive on September 29 but didn’t stop working at the restaurant until the day after. He was told by Purple Pig management to keep away from the restaurant for two weeks.
Ryan Love, a server and bartender, disputes that timeline and says the busser tested positive on September 24. Upon learning about his coworker’s test results on September 26, Love says he waited until September 28 to give management a chance to respond to the situation. When they did not, he said he spoke with management and even had a conversation with Bannos Jr. himself. Love says the positive test was “widely discussed” by staff before management sent out the email to restaurant staff. Love and his colleagues, frustrated with the poor communication, say that management isn’t committed to keeping the restaurant safe.
The lack of action, Love says, forced him and a colleague to take it upon themselves to inform diners. He says they rifled through contact details so they could send emails to customers by looking up contacts on reservations system Tock. They proceeded to send recent diners messages informing them they may have been exposed. This goes against management’s instructions, Love says, as they instructed staff not to mention COVID-19 to customers throughout the pandemic.
Love and two other workers picketed in front of the restaurant on October 7 while holding signs with messages like “211K Americans dead....Tapas anyone?” and “Test Workers.” Those picketers say management did not take the threat seriously by keeping the restaurant open and not telling the public. Now, two weeks later, the restaurant has closed, but workers are frustrated that they had to go to such lengths while voicing their concern to force management to take action.
The low picket numbers comes from fear, says host Juanita Lozano. Her colleagues were and still are afraid to speak up, fearful that they’ll lose their jobs during the pandemic. In March, when Chicago closed dine-in service for the first time, Lozano and other workers say management was unsympathetic toward them, telling them to visit local food banks for assistance. There was also mishandling for a GoFundMe for workers.
“We heard nothing about it for three months,” says server Kathleen Rogers.
Purple Pig is a Downtown Chicago fixture, where chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. followed the footsteps of his famous father. Jimmy Bannos Sr. was known for his Heaven on Seven restaurants which spanned more than three decades. The Purple Pig, which recently moved into a new location, hasn’t been a stranger to controversy as it’s been the subject of a few lawsuits, including one a case that was settled after worker claimed harassment from other workers.
The government does not force restaurants to close if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, although the Centers for Disease Control does recommend that management notify local health departments and warn workers who were in close contact with the infected employee.
Bannos Jr, via a statement emailed to Eater Chicago, says that the restaurant has followed tips from the CDC and local health experts. He also says he’s hired Dr. Kiran Chekka, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, to consult on the restaurant’s ongoing pandemic response. The doctor was part of an all-staff meeting held on October 7 at the restaurant. Workers tell Eater Chicago they didn’t want to attend as there was no video option. The notion of more than 50 people gathering indoors after a worker tested positive had the potential of being a “super spreader event,” says Love. “I was concerned for my safety in going into this meeting,” Love says. After numerous employees expressed concerns, the restaurant eventually added a video option.
At the meeting, Chekka told workers that management was going to do its best to keep the restaurant safe, but conceded closing the restaurant was a possibility during the pandemic: “That’s what we’re trying to avoid, we’re all on the same team,” he said at the meeting.
Still, workers didn’t walk away from the meeting feeling confident. While Chekka said he’d never advocate against testing, he didn’t see it necessary in all cases. With management regrouping while the restaurant remains close, workers are left in limbo. However, Love doesn’t expect to be welcomed back with open arms after he’s spoken up.
“I absolutely do not expect to have a job when I return,” he says.
There’s also an ongoing court case stemming from an incident last year at a Chicago Gourmet event where Bannos Jr. was charged with battery after fighting with workers from another restaurant. Alan Mares, then a cook at Mi Tocaya Antojeria, says Bannos Jr. punched him during the altercation. Mares says he hasn’t heard any developments in the case in prosecutors informed him of an August court date.
- The Purple Pig employees protest over concerns of coronavirus safety negligence [Tribune]