The omicron surge sweeping the nation is worsening widespread staffing shortages at Inland Empire restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and wineries as waves of employees call out sick.
The absences, driven by coronavirus infections along with seasonal flu and colds, are prompting closures, shortened hours and a scaling back of services.
Benita Bratton, owner of Gram’s BBQ Restaurant and Catering in downtown Riverside, closed her dining room Wednesday, Jan. 12, after a waitress and a dishwasher — from her staff of 12 — fell ill.
“We’ve had a lot of people out with the omicron,” Bratton said. “Right now it’s so prevalent that I want to protect my staff and my business.”
Bratton worries that, if she were to continue to offer indoor dining, given that people remove masks to eat, several more employees might get sick and force her to close down completely.
“We are just hanging on by a little thread,” she said.
She plans to offer outdoor dining only “until things get better.”
There have been other closures. For example, the inside of a Starbucks coffee shop in Ontario was seen closed Thursday, Jan. 13, though the drive-thru lane was open.
On Sunday, Jan. 9, a Pomona Starbucks known for its busy drive-thru was closed completely — as was the dining room. A sign announced new, limited hours.
“When a store is experiencing a temporary staff shortage, we respond by reducing hours” to avoid overworking employees, Starbucks spokesperson Abby Wadeson wrote in a Friday, Jan. 14, email.
Those decisions are made locally, Wadeson said.
Inland Empire economist John Husing said the surge in worker absences is aggravating a staffing shortage that employers have been grappling with for much of the pandemic.
It is impossible to miss the “help wanted” signs, which Husing said are “absolutely everywhere.”
“I don’t recall a period in my over 50 years of tracking this stuff anything like this,” he said.
Restaurants, small retail stores and hotels all are struggling to fill positions, Husing said. So are warehouses and trucking companies.
“Every truck, on the back of it, has a ‘Help Wanted’ sign,” he said.
The sharp rise in employee absences comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike across Southern California, rising to 4,257 in Los Angeles County, 1,107 in San Bernardino County and 991 in Riverside County as of Thursday, Jan. 13, state data show.
Earlier in the week, Riverside County Director of Public Health Kim Saruwatari reported that, while the especially contagious omicron variant is spreading quickly everywhere, it is infecting people in Riverside County even faster than in the state as a whole. The higher infection rate may be in part due to the types of businesses prevalent in the county, she said.
“We have a lot of hospitality industry — a lot of interaction between people,” Saruwatari said.
Recognizing that close interaction, and responding to a rise in worker sickness, Residence Inn by Marriott Ontario Rancho Cucamonga curbed room cleaning from daily to twice weekly, said Ivonne Sarmiento-Hernandez, the 126-room hotel’s director of sales.
The hotel also is encouraging visitors to do mobile check-in to avoid direct contact with front-desk employees, she said.
“For the most part, people have been very understanding,” she said.
“I just came back to work yesterday (Thursday) after being out sick for a week and a half,” with COVID-19, Sarmiento-Hernandez said.
“At this point, we are still down three people” from a staff of 22, she said. “It seems to be going in waves.”
Two of the three out are on the front-desk team, Sarmiento-Hernandez said. Earlier, several housekeeping employees were out at the same time.
The timing of the spike in absences has sometimes been fortunate and sometimes disastrous.
Fortunately, said B.J. Fazeli, president and founder of Fazeli Cellars Winery in the Temecula area, the stream of employees calling out sick is occurring during a January slow period that follows the bustling holiday season. The winery has been able to cover their shifts.
“If this had been happening at the beginning of December, we would have been in a lot of trouble,” Fazeli said.
For Leone Palagi, owner and executive chef at the downtown Riverside restaurant Mario’s Place, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
On Dec. 26 — the day after Christmas — a half dozen waiters and waitresses on a 45-person staff tested positive for the coronavirus, Palagi said. The next day, a cook came down with the virus.
Palagi closed the restaurant Dec. 28 and kept it shuttered the entire week — including on New Year’s Eve, when up to 300 people have flocked to the eatery in the past.
“It was like slamming the brakes on instead of coming to a slowly controlled stop,” he said.
Palagi and a few employees got together to offer takeout for three hours on New Year’s Eve. But in the face of the omicron spike, he said he couldn’t in good conscience open the dining room.
“It just didn’t seem like the night to have a big party and celebrate,” he said.
Up in Redlands, Olive Avenue Market owners Sonya Rozzi and Missy Van Zeyl scrambled to cover for three employees who were out last week.
“Missy and I got back in the kitchen, like we did when we first opened up,” Rozzi said. “You do what you have to do when it’s a small business.”
Even so, she said, the market couldn’t sell many baked items “because our baker was gone.”
Absences have stressed other employees who are putting in extra hours, Rozzi said.
“It’s been a taxing week and a half,” she said.
Down in Lake Elsinore, many restaurants along the downtown Main Street corridor sport signs saying, “Sorry for the delay in serving you, we have limited staff,” said Kim Joseph Cousins, president and CEO of the Lake Elsinore Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Cousins said the surge arrived as beloved restaurant Vincenzo’s Olive Tree — a Lake Elsinore “institution” — was having trouble finding enough cooks and workers. The eatery closed in December, he said. According to a social media post, the restaurant plans to reopen for takeout only Tuesday, Jan. 25, and open its dining room in February.
Despite the challenges, perhaps there is a silver lining to the omicron surge, said Palagi, the Mario’s Place owner.
“It spiked almost vertically,” Palagi said.
Maybe, he said, the surge — and accompanying worker absences — will fall as fast.
Staff writer David Allen contributed to this report.