'The Virus is Still Out There': How Restaurant Kitchens Became Covid Battlegrounds | Wine Enthusiast
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‘The Virus is Still Out There’: How Restaurant Kitchens Became Covid Battlegrounds

Marcus Hartford’s first symptom was exhaustion. It was April 2021 and the 24-year-old executive chef at Bar 145, a gastropub in Toledo, Ohio, was logging 50–60 hours at the restaurant each week. He initially chalked up his symptoms to these long hours plus the stress of directing a kitchen during a pandemic.

Then, he began to have trouble breathing.

Ultimately, Hartford, who believes he contracted the coronavirus while at work, was hospitalized and later placed on a ventilator. His family and friends were told more than once he was unlikely to survive. He spent more than 100 days on a ventilator and had most of his right lung removed during the seven months he was hospitalized.

Stories similar to Hartford’s have become tragically common among employees at restaurants across the country as, during the war on Covid-19, commercial kitchens have emerged as one of the most dangerous battlegrounds.

A study of excess deaths in people aged 18–65 in California in the first eight months of the pandemic found those who worked as line cooks had a 57% increase in mortality. That was a higher increase in mortality than experienced by health care workers or any other profession other than garment workers, whose risk from Covid was slightly higher than cooks. (A widely reported preprint of the study initially listed line cooks as the profession in California with the highest increased risk during the initial months of the pandemic.)

This increased risk was not a surprise to researchers, says the study’s lead author Yea-Hung Chen, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “We had hypothesized that we would see large increases in mortality among those unable to work from home,” he says. “We know that kitchens are often small and not well ventilated, [and] there have been numerous reports of inadequate protections in restaurant settings. There are other reasons the findings make sense to us, including social and environmental factors.”

While this study was limited to California and no equivalent research has been conducted at the national level, Chen believes the findings would be similar across the nation because he sees nothing unique about restaurant conditions in California that would alter risk factors.

According to one California study, those who work as line cooks had a 57% increase in mortality in the first eight months of the pandemic.

And Covid has clearly taken a terrible toll on restaurant workers across the country.

Jerry Reveron, a well-known Connecticut chef, died from the virus in early April 2020.

“He was a strong leader both physically and mentally,” says Carlos Perez, executive chef of At The Corner in Litchfield, Connecticut, and one of many who had been mentored by Reveron. Perez adds that Reveron’s death signaled to him how serious Covid was. “All of a sudden, this thing literally comes out of nowhere and within two weeks, he’s gone.”

In Washington State, Liz Mar, 72, the co-owner of Kona Kitchen, died from coronavirus in March of 2020, and her husband Robert, 78, died of the virus two days later. Though Mar wasn’t a cook, Angie Okumoto, her daughter, believes her mother caught the virus at work during the early days of the pandemic before masks and other mitigation measures were implemented.

“She was the grandma, the auntie, the matriarch there, and everyone came to see her,” says Okumoto. “I’m sure they hugged her.”

Kona Kitchen, a Hawaiian restaurant with locations in Seattle and Lynnwood, was opened in the early 2000s by Mar, Okumoto, and her husband Yuji Okumoto, an actor who played Ralph Macchio’s nemesis in The Karate Kid, Part II and recently reprised the role in season three of the Netflix series, Cobra Kai.

Even as restrictions have lifted, Okumoto says the restaurants have not been the same without her mother’s presence. “It was a blessing that I chose to go into business with her because I feel like in the last 18 years I got to spend a lot of time with her,” she says.

restaurant kitchens covid battlegrounds
Researchers found many restaurant kitchens do not have adequate ventilation or protections for workers / Getty

As dangerous as Covid-19 has been for kitchen workers, it’s not the only risk they face. In Norway, data shows that those who work in kitchens have some of the highest occupational risks, and research by Dr. Sindre Rabben Svedahl has suggested those who spend a lot of time inhaling cooking fumes are at increased risk for respiratory issues.

In summer 2020, Paz Aguilar was one of several workers who caught Covid while cooking at a combined KFC and Taco Bell in Oakland. Aguilar spread the virus to her sister-in-law and then, while quarantined, suffered a stroke that her doctors say was triggered by Covid. More than a year later, she still needs a cane to walk. She is now advocating for better pay, increased sick time and safer working conditions for fast food employees overall.

The pandemic is not the first time working in a commercial kitchen has threatened her health. Long before she contracted the virus, Aguilar said working the fryer on hot days, when the air conditioning couldn’t keep up, felt unsafe. “I would start feeling dizzy at work and I would have to say, ‘I need a break,’ ” she says.

Chen, the epidemiologist at the University of California, is currently studying how Covid vaccines may have altered risks among various professions. But even with vaccines available, he urges caution among restaurant workers, particularly line cooks. He says that restaurants should follow local health guidelines, have kitchen staff maintain distance from each other where possible, and owners and managers should give workers time off to get vaccinated.

As for Hartford, he returned home in mid-November and is still walking with a walker, and using oxygen to help get more air. He tells his friends in the restaurant industry to continue to take Covid seriously.

“A lot of people are out there celebrating,” he says. “It is good to celebrate life, but the virus is still out there.”

And it may be getting better at evading our defenses. Many experts expect that vaccines will not be as effective against the Omicron variant, which was detected a few weeks ago by researchers in Botswana and South Africa and has already been found in many U.S. states.

Even so, Hartford is determined to return to his position at Bar 145, which is waiting for him when he’s ready.

“I went to culinary school and this has been my whole life,” he says. “I have a lot to heal from still and a lot of strength to gain but as soon as I can, I definitely want to get back in the swing of things and do stuff in the kitchen.”