EVK coronavirus case prompts concern

Everybody’s Kitchen employees were informed of the coronavirus case in an email from USC Student Health and Auxiliary Services April 12. The kitchen officially closed April 17. (Sarah Yaacoub | Daily Trojan)

Students and employees expressed concern about coronavirus safety and campus notification protocol after Student Health reported an Everybody’s Kitchen worker’s coronavirus diagnosis last week. While USC Hospitality and Auxiliary Services have implemented prevention measures, including social distancing and requiring face coverings, students and workers remain uneasy about the potential spread of the virus.

EVK closed Friday for the remainder of the semester to curtail community spread within the facility after the employee tested positive the week before. EVK employees were notified April 12 in an email from USC that informed them that the employee last worked in the kitchen April 7 and attended a staff meeting April 10. 

The University confirmed that one worker who displayed symptoms did not test positive for the virus. Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman told the Daily Trojan no instances of community spread among EVK employees and students have developed from the case reported last week. 

“My co-worker said she was concerned about returning to a place where she could contract the virus,” said Maria Contreras, a guest services representative at EVK who has been taking a leave of absence from the dining hall due to underlying health conditions. “So, [Auxiliary Services management] told her to come back and that they would inform employees of everything they were going to do and that they had already taken measures to disinfect EVK.”

Van Orman said the kitchen was deep-cleaned April 12 following the report of the coronavirus case, but as of Saturday, residential dining services have moved to the USC Village Dining Hall, which is staffed by a different set of employees. Those who worked at EVK are taking paid administrative leave in line with the University’s policy for staff whose unit or department has suspended operations. Nonetheless, employees and students remain concerned about the possibility of exposure to the virus.

“It definitely is a little worrisome that there was a coronavirus case so close to my … living situation,” said Josh Weadick, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering who visited EVK every day until its closure because his dorm does not have a kitchen. Though Weadick was troubled by the news of the case, he believes that USC has taken the proper precautions.

Employees who had prolonged close contact with the individual who tested positive were notified individually and asked to self-isolate for four to five days, Van Orman said. Staff members not identified as having had close contact with the infected worker were asked to monitor and report symptoms to their supervisor and Student Health.

The only patrons USC identified who may have been exposed to the virus were those who visited the dining hall April 7, Van Orman said after looking into the infected employee’s work schedule and into when the symptoms appeared. Those individuals were notified of the case last Monday in an email from Student Health. However, the choice to limit those notified has left some students feeling uncertain. 

“I think all students should have been notified, especially within two weeks,” said Nathaly Macias, a junior majoring in business administration who did not visit EVK April 7 but frequented the dining hall before its closure. “Given the asymptomatic period, they could have been infected for two weeks prior to the employee finding out [they had the coronavirus]. There’s a lot of people that could have been put at risk.”

In an email to the Daily Trojan, UNITE HERE Local 11 organizer and representative Arelia Valdivia said the workers’ union has been in contact with USC regarding the positive coronavirus case and measures that should be implemented to prioritize the safety of EVK’s staff, which is a part of the group of housing and hospitality workers the union represents. She said the union also believes the University has taken necessary precautions, including closing EVK. 

“[USC] has been in communication with [UNITE HERE Local 11] since there was a positive [coronavirus] case among our membership,” the email read. “The Union has been working to ensure that all precautions are being taken to prioritize the safety of our members.”

Essential University employees exposed to the coronavirus who need to self-isolate receive paid leave, Van Orman said. Workers’ compensation benefits cover the cost of medical care related to the virus.

Although Contreras believes the paid leave of absence and social distancing guidelines are important steps from USC, she believes the University should do more to ease employee concerns about contracting the virus. 

“My co-workers do have these concerns and fears that they have contracted the virus and may bring it back to their families, to their homes,” Contreras said. “I think that it would be a good idea for workers to be tested to bring them peace of mind so that they may continue working.”

As USC continues to take precautions, Van Orman and Auxiliary Services have continued to reiterate health practices to prevent the spread of the virus including wearing face coverings in all public places on campus and practicing personal hygiene. 

“We believe that so far in all the cases we’ve had in employees, they’ve been acquired,” Van Orman said. “We know that there’s community transmission within Los Angeles, so we can anticipate that people will be acquiring it in other parts of their life, but we want to be very, very careful to not have any further spread within USC.”