SUMMIT, NJ — Harvest Restaurant Group of Morris Plains — which operates 14 dining establishments in New Jersey, including Roots Steakhouse in Summit and Addams Tavern in Westfield — is getting grilled on social media over the way some claim it has handled a COVID-19 outbreak that caused the two-week closure of four of their restaurants.

Shuttered for two weeks are Roots Steakhouse and the Huntley Taverne in Summit, along with the Addams Tavern in Westfield and Tabor Road Tavern in Morris Plains.

It is understood that a minimum of seven Summit Roots employees have tested positive and, on Nov. 13, the City of Summit and the Westfield Regional Health Department issued a health advisory urging Roots customers who frequented the bar area anytime between Nov. 3-12 get tested for COVID-19, while all other customers during the time period are being instructed to consult a physician.

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The COVID-19 related closure of Addams Tavern was the result of one employee’s positive test and that person was not at the restaurant during the virus’ “infectious period,” officials said Friday.

Restaurant ownership strongly disputes the claims being made against them, saying they have been transparent and taken their direction from the Westfield Regional Health Department.

The heat was turned up dramatically when Christian Zarate, a former Roots server who left his job on Nov. 11, placed a message on his Facebook page that same evening.

“For those of you who know me I rarely post on social media however with a sad heart I must bring attention to something extremely important and highly disturbing," Zarate posted. “I used to work at Roots Steakhouse in Summit up until this morning. I walked out in protest and cannot in good conscious not inform people that the restaurant is currently experiencing a severe Covid outbreak. At the moment I am writing this there have been at least 3 confirmed cases of Covid 19 in staff members in less then [sic] 72 hours with about 5 other staff members experiencing Covid symptoms.

“Everyone in the restaurant is aware while the owner Chip Grabowski is doing nothing and I mean nothing to ensure the safety of the current employees and the guests who walk into the restaurant. It is for this reason that I ask my friends and anyone who reads this who has been to Roots Steakhouse in Summit or has heard of Roots Steakhouse to please help me raise awareness by sharing this post in order to try and help stop the transmission of Covid to anyone else until the owner of the restaurant does the right thing by implementing common sense protocols to stop the spread and protect the employees and restaurant guests.”

TAPinto Summit spoke to Zarate and several other former and current Roots employees who maintain that they only learned of co-workers' positive COVID-19 tests from the person(s) testing positive, and that it was business as usual at the restaurant even after a second employee tested positive on Nov. 10. The individuals spoken to by TAPinto Summit also noted that the restaurant had been frequently exceeding the state-mandated 25% indoor dining capacity occupancy limit as it focused on profits over the safety of its employees and customers.

The day he left his job, Zarate said he sent an email to a Harvest Restaurant Group human resources contact that, in part, stated, “...I just had to walk out of Roots summit. [Name withheld by editor] has confirmed that he tested positive for Covid which now makes 2 people confirmed with many others experiencing symptoms. I have never walked out of any job I’ve ever had but I feel like it is the morally responsible thing to do. I’m aware that everyone in upper management knows about the situation but is unwilling to take the actions necessary to ensure the safety of the staff and guests that walk into the restaurant ... 

“I did not walk out ... of fear for myself contracting the virus but instead out of a feeling of empathy knowing that I could be complicit in knowing it’s active spread in the restaurant and allow others to get sick. There are guidelines outlined here by the CDC that give direct guidance as to what should be done given the circumstances that we currently face.”

Zarate remains concerned that the afore-mentioned guidance issued Nov. 13 from the City of Summit and Westfield Regional Health Department to Roots customers who visited the restaurant Nov. 3-12 is insufficient, as he alleges not all the restaurant's staff that have tested positive work in the bar and that some are servers.

The narrative put forth by Zarate and others is countered by Harvest Group's Owner/Chief Executive Officer Chip Grabowski, who offered a near polar-opposite account of the company's actions.

Grabowski replied to a series of questions posed by TAPinto Summit via email and telephone, stating, “Our first positive case was November 8th. We immediately notified all employees working. We received the second positive test very late Tuesday evening.”

Grabowski said that the restaurant conducts pre-shift meetings each day prior to lunch and dinner, and that employees were updated at those meetings relative to test results and health safety issues.

He said the restaurant group contact the health department on Nov. 9 and was in communication daily. “We followed the direction of the health department as weren't instructed to close. We were never instructed to notify the public.”

Grabowski said the restaurant provided the health department a list of any employees that came in close contact with the first employee that tested positive — who last worked, according to Grabowski, on Nov. 3 — for longer than 15 minutes in duration.

On Nov. 11, he said, “With an abundance of caution, we decided to close the restaurant on Thursday. On Thursday we had a conference call scheduled for noon with multiple health officials. At that time, we were still told we could operate as normal. We closed the restaurant.”

Relative to the claims of operating beyond state-mandated indoor capacity limits, he said, “That's inaccurate. There was never any directive to exceed the capacity of 25%. Most people prefer outside eating as it has been great weather. And further, it's impossible to seat 80% inside with the number of tables we were using outside that were inside tables.”

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