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My Employee Tested Positive for COVID-19, Now What?

5 Steps to Take When a Food Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19

One of the scariest things about COVID-19 is how quickly and easily it can spread to others. Because it can take 2-14 days for symptoms to emerge, a person could have no idea they have the virus and go about their normal routine — including going to work — all while unknowingly exposing others.

With the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States continuing to climb, it’s likely you’ll have to deal with at least one employee testing positive for the virus, maybe more. When one of your food handlers or managers tests positive for COVID-19, there are five steps you should take:

1. Make a plan.

Ideally, this is something you’ll do before any of your employees get sick. Create a policy that outlines what your establishment will do if a food worker tests positive for COVID-19.

Make sure you address questions like the following:

  • How long will your establishment close potentially infected areas?
  • Who is responsible for disinfecting those areas?
  • How will your establishment alert employees who may have been exposed?

Once you’ve created the policy, share it with your staff. Make sure all managers and shift supervisors know where to find a copy of it. Having a plan in place will help create a sense of security for your team and also give you some peace of mind.

2. Send the sick employee home.

Once an employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19, they need to self-isolate immediately. If an employee tells you they tested positive during a shift, send them home. If they call in to tell you their results, inform them that they cannot come back to work until they have recovered. They are not required to provide a doctor’s note as evidence of a positive test before you send them home. If they show symptoms of COVID-19, send them home.

Ideally, you would require employees to have two negative COVID tests at least 24 hours apart before coming back to work. But in some areas, testing might not be readily available. In these cases, your employees can return to work if they meet all of the following conditions:

  • They have not had a fever for three days
  • Their breathing has improved
  • It has been 10 days since their first symptoms appeared

This can be hard for your employees, especially if they don’t get paid sick days, but they must stay home for the safety of everyone in your establishment.

3. Close down all areas used by the employee.

The CDC recommends closing down all areas used by the sick employee. Some research suggests that COVID-19 can spread through infected respiratory droplets in the air, but the amount of time the air remains potentially infectious is unknown. Closing down infected areas allows time for viral pathogens in the air to settle onto surfaces where they can be cleaned away.

If possible, try to close potentially infected areas for at least 24 hours before allowing people back into those spaces. If you are unable to close for the full 24 hours, try to get as close to that amount of time as you can. No matter how long you choose to close, do your best to ventilate the area by opening any windows or using ventilating fans to clear the air before disinfecting.

This does not mean you have to close your entire establishment either, only specific areas. Here’s an example: Say a restaurant has a bar separated from the rest of the restaurant and one of the bartenders tested positive for COVID-19. You could temporarily close down the bar area and keep the dining area open for service.

If the sick employee has not been in your establishment for the last seven days it isn’t necessary to close any part of it, but you should still follow the rest of the steps.

4. Inform other employees that they’ve been exposed.

Without disclosing any names, tell everyone who worked with the sick employee that they have been exposed to COVID-19. If you can, give them time off to self-isolate for the recommended 14 days from the time of exposure. If your establishment cannot do this, ask the exposed employees to monitor their temperatures and symptoms carefully.

Have exposed employees take their temperature before each shift. During their shift they should wear a mask and social distance as much as possible. Before they leave, have them clean and disinfect everything they touched during the day. If anyone begins to feel sick during their shift, send them home immediately.

These are best practices for food establishments even if all your employees are healthy. 

You are not required to contact customers when one of your employees tests positive for COVID-19. If you do tell customers they’ve been exposed, do not share any staff names or other personal medical information.

5. Clean, sanitize, and disinfect the area.

Colloquially, we tend to use the terms “clean,” “sanitize,” and “disinfect” interchangeably. It’s important to know that there is a distinction between these terms and why that’s important, especially In a food establishment.

Cleaning is the removal of visible debris, like dirt and dust, from a surface. This is an important first step to cleaning any space. Go over all potentially infected surfaces with a cleaner or detergent to remove any general debris from the area.

Using sanitizer or disinfectant is the next step. Sanitizer and disinfectant are very similar chemicals. Both of them kill germs and bacteria, but disinfectant is more effective than sanitizer at killing viruses. This is why the CDC has been suggesting disinfectant to be used in foodservice establishments — it is an added protection against SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

However, disinfectant is toxic and not approved for use on food-contact surfaces. Disinfectant can be used on high-touch, non-food-contact surfaces like door handles, chairs, menus, etc. Sanitizers should be used for anything that comes into contact with food.

After you’ve closed off the areas used by the sick employee, open windows or turn on a fan to ventilate the room. Then you can get to work cleaning and sanitizing/disinfecting. All employees cleaning infected areas should wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) like masks, disposable gloves, and gowns while cleaning. 

Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s website list of approved disinfectants that are proven to protect against SARS-CoV-2. Always read the manufacturer label before using a new chemical in your establishment.

In summary, if you haven’t had to handle an employee’s positive COVID-19 test yet, you likely will before the pandemic is through. It’s vital that you follow these steps to allow the sick employee time to heal and also protect the other members of your staff and your customers.

If you have to close your establishment due to COVID-19 or if you have any questions about how to deal with COVID-19 at your establishment, the FDA has offered its assistance. You can reach out to them at

— Hailey Kate Chatlin

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