Most diners give information, but some resistant to contact tracing

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 24, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: July 24, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Most Memphis diners have been cooperative in giving their names and phone numbers when they dine in Shelby County restaurants. But most doesn’t mean all, and it’s wearing on restaurateurs and their employees.

Ben Brock owns Char and Amerigo. He said he’s had a rough spot or two.

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“Mostly it’s just been people asking why,” he said. “In the end everyone is giving a number, even if they balk, but I don’t know if they’re giving their real numbers. All we can do is take what they give us.”

The Shelby County Health Department’s Health Directive 8, effective July 8, states that restaurateurs must ask diners for names and telephone numbers and also maintain a seating chart. The names and numbers are supposed to be kept on file for 30 days and the seating chart for 21 days.

But Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter, in a recent interview and again in testimony on July 20 in federal court, said that obtaining the first name and a telephone number from one person in a party would be sufficient if diners are reluctant to share more information.

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Wally Joe, chef/owner of Acre, said that’s good to know.

“Most people are fine with it, but there are some people we know and they give a fake name anyway,” he said. “If we only have to get one name, we’ll already have that from the reservation.

“People are tired of having to abide by this rule and that rule, but as a restaurant we have so much to abide by already,” Joe said. “We don’t want to do anything that makes people unhappy if we don’t have to do it.

“There are people who come in and say, ‘I don’t feel like I need to do this and they can’t make me,’ and all that does is make it hard on the server. We’re like ‘don’t shoot the messenger,’ and we know that sometimes they just end up giving a fake name and number.”

The Health Department wants the information so they can contact diners if it turns out someone who tests positive for COVID-19 was in the restaurant at the same time. Restaurants have made it simple, either putting a sheet of paper on the table for the diners to write their names and numbers or asking for the information on arrival.

Last week Jason and Rebecca Severs at Bari Ristorante e Enoteco encountered a would-be customer who wouldn’t comply.

“Actually, last week I think we had at least one person every night who had something to say about it or some complaint, to tell us that we didn’t have the right to ask, that they didn’t have to give us the information or something like that,” Jason Severs said.

One guy took it too far.

“This guy kept telling us his name was Jiminy Cricket, and we told him again and again that we just needed his name and number, that we were required to get it, but he wouldn’t do it. My wife even told him, ‘You could’ve just said Bob Smith or something,’ but he kept saying Jiminy Cricket. His wife asked him to give it and told him we were just doing our job, but he wouldn’t give it to us, and they left.”

Severs said if he’s allowed to just get a first name and phone number, that’s what he’ll do.

“It would be great if the Health Department would communicate and tell everybody, but I get everything is fluid right now. It’s crazy how fast things change,” he said.

And the changing guidelines make it hard on restaurants. Ben Smith is the chef/owner of Tsunami in Cooper-Young, where he said as far as he knows, there’s been no pushback with names and numbers.

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“But from an operator’s perspective, it’s just another layer of responsibility that falls on us. Not only do we have to take names and numbers, but we have to keep a seating chart,” he said.

“After a certain point, some of us are just wondering if it’s worth it to have a restaurant anymore. I hear this from a lot of people. I hear this from friends all the time. There’s a lot on us. We’re doing everything that’s asked of us in the restaurant business and there’s been so much focus and so much accountability directed to the restaurants.”

And if diners expect restaurants to be extra vigilant in keeping them safe by sticking to the rules, they need to do the same for restaurant staff, he said.

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“We have another flaming hoop to jump through every week, then we have people saying ‘My name is Jiminy Cricket and my phone number is 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 and guess what? I don’t have to wear a mask because of my liberty,’” Smith said.

Ryan Trimm has been lucky at his Cooper-Young restaurant Sweet Grass, where he says there’s only been minor grousing and a few political comments from diners before they give their information. Ditto at his place on Jefferson, Sunrise, but he’s had some complaints and fake names Downtown at 117 Prime.

“One guy wrote down Dan Marino, the football player. Another said he was Abe Froman, which is from ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’” he said. “I’ve only had one guy just refuse to fill it out and I was like ‘whatever, I can’t force you.’

“But then he said ‘Now you’ve made me feel awkward and I don’t feel like I should sit down,’” Trimm said. “I told him to have a seat and while we were talking, his wife was writing down their names.”

None of the restaurateurs interviewed plan to keep the information past 30 days. It’s filed and available if the Health Department requests it; it’s not used for anything else.

Last week one would-be diner felt so strongly about not giving her information that she called ahead before she joined a group of friends for a meal at Amerigo.

“She called and asked if we were asking for names and numbers and we told her yes, so she said she wasn’t coming,” Brock said.

“She said that was none of our business and we said that was fine, and no one told her that her name and number were on our caller ID.”


Restaurants and COVID-19 Alisa Haushalter Ben Brock Ben Smith Jason Severs Ryan Trimm Wally Joe
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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