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Etta Bucktown Criticized for COVID-19 Response as River North Opens Thursday

Etta chef Danny Grant isn’t sure what closing for a day would accomplish

A restaurant exterior with a patio.
Etta in River North opens on Thursday.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Chef Danny Grant is opening a new restaurant this week while dealing with public outcry over how his group handled how multiple employees testing positive for COVID-19 at his company’s Bucktown restaurant. An anonymous — and since-deleted — Instagram account called “Etta’s Got Covid” chided management at Etta for continuing operations without informing the public about the diagnosis.

Keeping Etta (1840 W. North Avenue) open provides employment to those could secure a $600 pandemic unemployment check, Grant says. There’s no pandemic operational template for Etta to copy, and management has had to reinvent itself several times since Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed dining rooms in March, Grant says. Finding best practices is not easy.

“We’ve been committed to this for the last six months to find a way to continue to keep our staff, our family, our patrons, all safe,” Grant says.

Etta hasn’t broken any laws with its response, but that provides little solace for concerned employees. There’s no governmental mandate on how restaurants should react if a worker tests positive. The Centers for Disease Control recommends restaurant and bar owners to notify local health officials and to wait at least 24 hours before a deep clean. The CDC suggests management to notify employees who were in close contact with the infected worker. That’s in line with city requirements, and Etta has communicated that with staff. Although there’s a not mandate for close, some restaurants — like Big Star in Wicker Park — elect to close and regroup for a few days.

For Grant, he’s not sure what closing temporarily can accomplish for Etta and that he wanted to avoid “knee-jerk reactions” to the positive tests. Etta is a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant that’s open for indoor and outdoor dining, along with carryout. Etta’s been so popular since opening in 2018 in Bucktown, that Grant and company are opening a second location Thursday in River North. Other locations are planned near LA and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Etta’s run by What If Syndicate, the same company that owns luxe Gold Coast steakhouse Maple & Ash (they also have an Arizona location).

Grant didn’t say how many workers test positive, and it’s unclear if the affected workers were in the kitchen or front of the house. A Block Club Chicago story published Saturday reports at least three. Etta workers tell Block Club they feel Etta management is ignoring their responsibilities with poor communication, both internally and externally.

Pandemic communication between management and staff has been a problem at several restaurants, including at Pacific Standard Time in River North. But Grant feels his team has done a good job, even though there’s always room for improvement. He also feels they’ve taken the pandemic seriously. Last week, they started COVID-19 tests for all 500 workers in the company. They’ll conduct offsite testing twice a month. Etta management tells workers who test positive to quarantine for two weeks.

“As for as closing down, I really don’t know what closing for a day does,” Grant says. “The virus, it’s everywhere...we need to get testing as often as possible and be able to be as transparent as possible with our staff so everyone feels safe and comfortable.”

Health experts say customers shouldn’t be shocked if a worker at their favorite restaurant tests positive for the novel coronavirus. It’s inevitable, but a restaurant’s response is telling. That’s something to keep in mind as Grant opens Etta’s second location on Thursday at 700 N. Clark Street. The restaurant features a patio for outdoor dining. The dining room will be outfitted with dividers and other safety features.

“This pandemic isn’t going away fast enough,” Grant says. “We have to ask ourselves ‘how do we make this sustainable?’”


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