Independent restaurants ask Health Department for same-day employee testing

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 29, 2020 1:03 PM CT | Published: July 29, 2020 10:44 AM CT

A group of independent restaurateurs sent a letter to the Shelby County Health Department on July 29 asking for same-day testing and results for restaurant workers.

The letter also states the Memphis Restaurant Association does not represent their views on some issues and they want to speak for themselves.

“We feel that the Memphis Restaurant Association leadership has not been willing or able to share with you the unique challenges facing the independent sector of our industry,” the letter read.

It was signed by 27 restaurateurs from about 20 restaurants; the full list and letter is at the end of the article.

The group provided four bullet points. They want “clear, science-based guidelines consistent with CDC guidelines” to follow; they support the mask ordinance and feel it “is in fact being pro-small business”; they want to use the bar area of their restaurants to serve meals; and they want same-day testing and results for restaurant employees.

“I think there’s been a concern that there’s a one-size-fits-all policy when the restaurant industry is so diverse in Memphis,” said John Vergos, co-owner of the Rendezvous.

“There’s been some concern that the (Memphis Restaurant Association) hasn’t really taken that in account. As far as us, we’re going to do what’s in our best interest of the Rendezvous regardless, but I do think if the MRA is lobbying the government and the state, they need to take all restaurants in account.

“That’s with all due respect to Ernie (Mellor, MRA president) and the board. They’re trying to do the best they can in a difficult situation.”

The Rendezvous has been closed for more than two weeks for inside dining, and Vergos said he’s not sure when it will reopen.

“We have to see the trends going down and we have to have quick turnaround on testing first,” he said.

The delay in testing has caused Erling Jensen: The Restaurant and Cocozza American Italian, a temporary restaurant owned by Patrick and Deni Reilly operating from The Majestic Grille, each to close for a week after an employee tested positive.

“I look at restaurant workers as front-line workers, like the grocery store workers,” said Bert Smythe, co-owner of McEwen’s on Monroe. “We need a better testing situation for restaurants to be able to efficiently operate right now.”

McEwen’s has not reopened as it’s under renovation that was planned before COVID.

Kelly English, chef/owner of Restaurant Iris, The Second Line and Fino’s, said the MRA was notified of the letter.

“All of us speak on behalf of the group,” he said. “We’re not an organization, just a group of restaurants trying to survive, trying to figure out the best way to keep our businesses, our staff and our customers healthy. We want our voices to be heard.”

He thinks Mellor should not have said publicly that he didn’t wear a mask in restaurants, a statement he made before the city’s mask mandate was issued. Even at that time, many other restaurateurs wanted customers to wear masks to protect the staff, English said. Smythe agreed, and said that was “inappropriate.”

“I think that when our leaders speak, casually or not, their words carry a lot of weight,” English said.

Mellor said those days are gone.

“When we did not have a mandate, I chose not to wear a mask because I felt safe, but my tune has changed,” he said. “We’re basically at the Health Department’s mercy.”

“When they issued the directive, I said ‘Here’s what we’ve got to do guys, we’ve got to wear masks. So we’re all masks, masks, masks.’”

English said the member restaurateurs are not leaving the MRA.

“It’s not about us leaving, and not everyone on the list is a member of the MRA. But they’ve made it very clear they speak on behalf of everyone, members and nonmembers, and we want to be sure our voices are heard.”

Text of letter to Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter

Dear Director Haushalter,

We hope that you, your family, and your colleagues are safe during these unprecedented and stressful times. 

We understand the herculean task that faces you and your organization and we appreciate the thankless efforts you continue to make in your effort to keep Shelby County safe for everyone while keeping our industry and its workforce as sustainable as it can be.

We feel that the Memphis Restaurant Association leadership has not been willing or able to share with you the unique challenges facing the independent sector of our industry. Despite our many attempts to work with the MRA to develop a platform that represents the needs and positions of our independent owners and those in our employ, we have collectively made the decision to reach out to you directly to offer some insight as to what our thoughts and concerns are, and, if you’ll take it, an offer to be of assistance as you navigate this crisis in the upcoming months. We, like all business owners, want to keep our employees safe and financially secure, our guests safe and fed, and our businesses sustainable. We are eager to work with you so we can, together, achieve that goal. We’ve outlined our positions below:

  • We would like to get clear science-based guidelines consistent with CDC recommendations and follow them.
  • We recognize the value of wearing masks and fully support the order that requires it. We also feel that promoting and adhering to the mask order is in fact being pro-small business.
  • While we support the occupancy restrictions placed on restaurants we would like you to explore the possibility of full service restaurants being able to utilize their bar areas to serve meals while adhering to the social distancing, alcohol restrictions and time restraint directives that are currently in place (even if more stringent than the regulations at tables). For some of us these bar areas constitute a large percentage of our available seating and are vital for our ability to remain open.
  • Regular testing is vital for our industry, as our contact with large amounts of people at distances closer than recommended is high. Our employees need to have access to same day testing appointments and same day results so we can utilize more effectively and fully commit to our role in the current county wide contact tracing program, a program we fully support.

We understand that following protocol set forth is the only way to see our businesses and the jobs they create and support (both internally and through the chain of supplies and entertainment that we symbiotically count on) survive.

We do not envy the position you are in and are all very much aware that the needs of your various constituencies can be quite different and sometimes contradictory. We do feel that we could be a strong asset to you when you do have to make decisions that affect our businesses and employees and our ability to fulfill our obligation to help keep the public healthy and nourished.

We are all in this together and we stand willing and eager to help you in any way that you may see fit.


Anna Blair

Craig Blondis

Karen Carrier

Colleen DePete & José Gutierrez

Kelly English

Michael Hudman

Tina Jennings

Jaquila & Erling Jensen

Wally Joe

John Littlefield

Jonathan Magallanes

Michael Patrick

Tamra Patterson

Ronald Payne

Deni & Patrick Reilly

Roger Sapp

Rebecca & Jason Severs

Ben Smith

Bert Smythe

Andy Ticer

Bala Tounkara

Ryan Trimm

John Vergos

Felicia Willett


Memphis Restaurant Association Restaurants and COVID-19 Kelly English Bert Smythe Ernie Mellor
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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