Chicago Businesses Ramp Up Their Own COVID-19 Contact Tracing

With official contact tracing programs still hiring workers, some businesses are doing their own tracing to track customer and employee exposure to the virus.

Contact tracing
Courtesy Getty Images
Contact tracing
Courtesy Getty Images

Chicago Businesses Ramp Up Their Own COVID-19 Contact Tracing

With official contact tracing programs still hiring workers, some businesses are doing their own tracing to track customer and employee exposure to the virus.

When customers walk into Doyle Designed, a salon in south suburban Flossmoor, they need to do a few things before they can hop in a swivel chair for a shampoo and rinse.

Put on a mask. Get their temperature checked. Use hand sanitizer. And fill out and sign the salon’s COVID-19 form.

Have you been sick in the last 14 days?

Have you been around anyone who has been sick in the last 14 days?

Do you have any flu-like symptoms?

These are among the questions on the one-page form, devised by salon owner Doyle Sims, that act as his business’ contact tracing. If someone comes down with COVID-19, whether it’s a customer or an employee, Sims wants to be able to quickly reach out to people who may have come into contact with the person who got sick.

The goal is to slow the spread of the new coronavirus and to reassure customers and employees that his business is taking the virus seriously.

“I just felt it was imperative that I asked some questions that relieve my mind for me and my staff also, ’cause we see a lot more people than they see,” said Sims, who opened his salon about 25 years ago.

Around five months into the pandemic in Illinois, and with cases rising quickly in Chicago, public health officials are still hiring hundreds of contract tracers. So Sims and other business owners are trying to fill in the gap.

Their efforts aren’t as thorough as the intense, time-consuming work of public health-backed tracers. Those workers may spend hours on the phone tracking down people who came into so-called close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, asking them a series of questions about who they may have come into contact with and then continuing that chain, reaching out to those people as well.

But after losing months of revenue during the statewide shutdown, business owners are figuring out their own ways to protect their employees and customers to try to prevent having to close yet again.

They’re also grappling with how widely they need to disclose a potential COVID-19 exposure. Do they need to notify everyone who came into their store, for example, or just those who came into direct contact with the sick customer or employee? And for how long did that exposure need to be, they’re asking themselves.

While businesses may be making their own calls on this, the Chicago Department of Public Health recommends that businesses notify all workers, and especially people who had “close contact” with the infected person. That’s being within 6 feet of them for more than 15 minutes starting two days before the sick person first had symptoms, or for sick people who don’t show symptoms, since the day they got tested for COVID-19.

Businesses should also tell customers “if applicable” about potentially being exposed, as well as any decisions to close the facility or change services, the city’s public health department recommends.

The customer experience has drastically changed

At some restaurants in the Chicago area, before diners can sit down, they’re greeted with temperature checks and paperwork. Servers want customers’ names, phone numbers and email addresses in case they need to follow up should someone get COVID-19.

In some cases, restaurants are asking customers to sign an affidavit that says they’re healthy.

It might make some customers uneasy that businesses are collecting so much information. But some point out that many companies already do this — like the marketing emails that boast big sales, or the coupon accounts at local grocery stores.

When Amanda Lee went to buy a lamp recently at Rejuvenation, the North Side store asked for her name and phone number as she walked in. They explained that it would be used to get in touch in case someone got sick with COVID-19, she said.

“To me it was just sort of like a message of ‘We care about you as customers and we want to make sure that if one of our staff or someone is found to be positive that we’re able to keep you informed,’” said Lee, a local nurse practitioner.

At SoHo House in Fulton Market, where an annual membership can cost at least $2,000, the private social club tells members when they make reservations that information about them and their guests could be used for tracing.

Member Suman Chagarlamudi said she doesn’t mind what others might think is an intrusion.

“It’s for the betterment of every person there and every member,” Chagarlamudi said. “If there is a case there, they can contact anyone that’s been there. It’s a safety precaution that’s there for the benefit of all the members.”

Parents who sign up their kids for a weeklong Pedalheads camp, where they learn how to ride a bike in a school or church parking lot, were already used to providing their names, phone numbers and email addresses well before COVID-19 began. It’s part of Pedalheads’ typical registration process.

But now having that information helps the company react immediately if anyone at the camp tests positive for COVID-19.

“We can look through our system and see exactly who was at camp that week, and be able to get in touch with them immediately through email and through phone,” said Ben Oryall, manager of regional expansion and development at Vancouver-based Pedalheads.

But all this informal contact tracing is only part of many businesses’ approach to managing the virus. The first is trying to prevent the spread in the first place. At Pedalheads, for example, class sizes have been kept small, with usually around six kids to a group.

Bikes keep the kids apart, and masks, even outdoors, are encouraged. But the camp has one more trick to keep up the social distancing, to keep kids far apart while waiting for class to start or for caregivers to pick them up when class is over:

“We have hula hoops,” Oryall said.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics team. Follow her @kschorsch.