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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Small-business owners confused by CDC’s changing guidelines on isolation

Shoppers on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on Dec. 24, 2021. Business owners are concerned for their workers as the omicron variant rips through the country, driving a surge in COVID cases.

By Emma Goldberg

Jesus Caicedo-Diaz climbs into bed most nights by 9. He eats raw garlic and onions to give his dulled taste buds a jolt. Four months after getting COVID-19, he is still wading through an interminable recovery. So when he thinks of his five employees at Skål, his restaurant in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, he cannot imagine offering just five days off work when they get sick.

Some small business owners, including Caicedo-Diaz, are perplexed by shifting messaging on how long people should isolate after testing positive for the coronavirus. Last Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention halved to five days the recommended isolation period for those without symptoms and those without fevers whose other symptoms are resolving. Those leaving isolation should wear masks around others for an additional five days under the new guidelines.

“Every few weeks there’s a new rule, a new mandate, a new thing,” Caicedo-Diaz, 36, said, adding that he plans to ask workers to continue taking at least 10 days when they get COVID. “It’s very confusing.”

Business owners are concerned for their workers as the omicron variant rips through the country, driving a surge in COVID cases. They are also struggling to keep their businesses staffed, with the new spate of cases adding to a worker shortage that they have been reckoning with for months.

While a briefer isolation period could help people get back on the job more quickly, some owners also worry about how to determine when someone is healthy enough to return.

“It does feel like a short amount of time given most people that I know still test positive at five days,” said Diana Mora, who owns Friends and Lovers, a bar in Brooklyn that is temporarily closed because of the omicron surge in New York City but will reopen for New Year’s Eve.

But some hospitality workers said they are cautiously optimistic about the changing guidelines, having seen the new variant’s relatively mild effects in some cases.

“I’m a fan of the shortened quarantine, but I’m going to keep an eye on myself and try to make sure I’m as well as I think I am,” said Amelia Smoak, 29, who works at a restaurant and bar in Manhattan’s East Village and plans to return to work Wednesday after testing positive for the coronavirus Thursday. Her symptoms have remained minimal.

“I sneezed more than I normally do,” she said.

The Main Street Alliance, a nonprofit business education group, is hopeful that the CDC’s new guidelines can “provide confidence” and support for businesses in rapidly bringing their employees back to work without risking their health and safety.

Still, with isolation guidelines evolving — and often left to individual discretion — employers said they remained focused on preventing workplace outbreaks.

“By maintaining vaccination and sanitization, we can hopefully keep it at bay,” said Marcia St. Hilaire-Finn, 55, who runs Bright Start Early Care in Washington, D.C., which requires its 30 staff members to get COVID vaccines.

Over the holidays, St. Hilaire-Finn pressed her workers to get the booster by offering a $100 incentive.

“It’s cheaper for me to do that than having to shut down for months,” she said. “You have to think big picture.”

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