Last week, Curious City answered a question on the safety of Illinois’ recently restored outdoor dining. We talked to health professionals about how to do it more safely. In the process, we heard about an innovative safety plan afoot at Uptown’s Sun Wah BBQ, famous for its roasted duck dinners. Co-owner Kelly Cheng told us she plans to require all diners to sign a declaration of health regarding COVID-19 and share all of their contact information before sitting down.
Cheng hopes to get the restaurant’s new outdoor patio license this week from the city. But even if they don’t get it, she says they still plan to require customers to sign the declaration before diners head indoors later this summer. The following is an edited transcript about why Cheng — who started running the restaurant with her siblings when her dad retired — decided to do this and how she anticipates it will work.
So you guys were getting by and keeping your staff safe during the pandemic with just a brisk curbside pick-up business on weekends. Why did you decide to apply for a patio permit at this time?
Kelly Cheng: If we don’t have an outdoor space, we don’t have a learning curve. … And I’ve been hearing a lot of horror stories, people that have been opening right away, and then they get bombarded with customers and then people get upset. And then you have basically fights breaking out, you know, whether it’s verbal or actual fights breaking out, because people have been locked up for three months and they don’t honestly know how to behave in public anymore.
And so having read a lot of those weird, crazy stories and knowing that we can be a draw for crowds, I really didn’t want to just jump back in. My staff are willing to work, but they’re also fearful. They’re like, ‘Well, you know, what if we have crowds? How are we going to control that?’ We only have a skeleton crew.
How did you get the idea to have people sign an affidavit of sorts about their health?
Cheng: I was also doing research and a lot of people were throwing the Black Sheep Restaurant handbook at me. Black Sheep is a restaurant group in Hong Kong. And I pay attention to the restaurant industry in Hong Kong, not just because they have good food and stuff, but because they are such a crowded, densely populated space. And eight times out of ten, they’re ahead of the curve.
And what they essentially did was make rules for what their employees should do, what would happen. They made a health declaration form, and I think that is the most brilliant thing on earth.
What does their form look like?
Cheng: So they basically tell you you have to attest that you don’t have covered symptoms, that you’re not sick, that you haven’t exhibited the symptoms, and for their form, that they haven’t been outside of Hong Kong for the last 14 days. In other words, you’re not in quarantine and you’ve snuck out to come for some food.
And they were very strict about the form. … But they had trouble getting people to sign the form. So what they did was they turn people away. They said the first night they reopened, they turned away like 50 parties … because those people wouldn’t sign the affidavit. And then they created a WhatsApp group with their entire restaurant group team so that those same groups that refuse that store A couldn’t go to store B, C and D and try to pull off the same stunt and get in.
[Eventually many diners warmed up to the idea. The restaurant group’s manual is now being shared across the world, and their safety protocols have allowed them to survive and even make expansion plans amid the pandemic.]
What will your form look like?
Cheng: I’ve made it much more simple. And this is America, so obviously lawsuits will happen, and they have privacy concerns. … I’ve essentially said, OK, you have attest that you are not sick. You haven’t exhibited signs of COVID-19. You haven’t had COVID[-19] in the last 14 days. I don’t bother asking people if they’ve been out of town, but I ask for people’s names, numbers, emails and so forth. Contact information.
I also put a disclaimer: Your information will not be used. No one will see it except your server, me, the manager and you the customer, essentially. I’m not going to have these, like, laying around for people to check out. And I’m not going to use them to market or spam you. I’m only going to use this form, and it will only become public if that happens to be a [COVID-19] case and we’re informed that someone at our restaurant has or contracted COVID[-19]. And my last disclaimer was … this form that you’ve signed will be destroyed in 60 days.
What did your dad think about the form?
Cheng: He said, ‘It’s a form, people are not going to sign it. What if they give you fake info?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ve done my part. I have put that form out there. If they’re going to give me fake info because they don’t want their info out there and anything goes wrong, I can’t help them.’
I am going to tell the customer, ‘This is for your own good, because if anything goes wrong, I can find you and tell you and give you information.’ And suddenly you’re using this as a marketing tool to help people.
The first few weeks of this, you are only going to take reservations and then only from people who sign the form. Where can they find more information?
Cheng: This is all going up on the website so people can see it. I’m going to have it on Facebook linked to the websites. I also started an Instagram, so I’m going to put it on there.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org