Carolina Beer Guy: Local breweries enact strict protocols to protect employees from COVID-19

SCREEN TIME: Russ Brown, general manager of Wicked Weed Brewing's brewpub, checks his temperature before starting work. Such procedures are now standard in Asheville-area breweries, whose owners remain vigilant in monitoring employees' health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Julia Lindholm

Anyone who’s visited a local taproom over the past few months has seen big changes as business owners attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 while operating at a reduced capacity. Some breweries are offering service exclusively outside, masks are required for anyone going indoors, and, for various reasons, several businesses have yet to resume regular operations even after Gov. Roy Cooper‘s Phase 2 reopening plan made doing so legal.

For brewery employees, however, there is another set of procedures in place, often less visible, to help keep everyone well. The process differs from brewery to brewery, and from bartenders to brewers to packaging crews. But in each sector, if a worker reports feeling ill or shows sign of fever, a system quickly snaps into place to protect both the employee and the brewery.

Such actions were taken twice in July by Wicked Weed Brewing Co. First, an employee was found to have the virus at the company’s Funkatorium location. The unnamed employee received medical attention, and the taproom, the adjoining Cultura restaurant and the Barrel House event space were immediately closed for a complete deep cleaning conducted by Biopure Asheville.

No other employees or guests were exposed to the virus, according to a statement posted on the brewery’s Facebook page. The Funkatorium reopened on July 13 with with expanded outdoor seating — eschewing indoor service for the time being.

Days later, another employee tested positive for the virus, this time at the brewery’s flagship location on Biltmore Avenue, according to director of pubs Jared Edwards. It, too, was closed for cleaning and, after its July 20 reopening, only offers outdoor seating.

Edwards says the two cases are unrelated — a conclusion reached through contact tracing. Both employees are recovering.

According to co-founder Ryan Guthy, Wicked Weed has a company committee to discuss policy and procedures related to the coronavirus, and there is also input from parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev. All employees must wear a mask on the job and get daily temperature checks. “I really think our team has done a great job in thinking ahead,” he says.

The Funkatorium employee’s test result was the first known case of COVID-19 in an Asheville-area brewery. But there have been at least two other brewery cases statewide, says Richard Greene, executive director of the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, which represents breweries across the state and provides industry-specific guidance and direction on the pandemic via its website. Greene would not identify the other breweries where coronavirus was found or say where they are located in North Carolina.

Local brewery owners mostly agree that future cases are possible — if not certain. That likelihood reinforces the importance of having safety protocols in place before the illness is detected.

“I commend Wicked Weed for announcing that they had employees who tested positive,” says Paul Casey, owner of French Broad River Brewery. His crew gets a daily temperature check. Front-of-house employees must wear masks at work, and while those in the back of the brewery are not required to wear a mask, he says many do.

Casey believes that it is inevitable that more cases of COVID-19 will be reported on the brewing scene as the pandemic continues to rage. “We will be as responsible as we can for our employees and our patrons,” he says. “This is something that we will have to deal with for a while.”

Catawba Brewing Co. has thorough procedures to watch for the virus, according to co-owner Billy Pyatt. He says a medical professional, who’s also a family member, is serving as the brewery’s medical consultant and assisted in creating their safety plan. Brewery employees get daily checks of temperatures and blood oxygen levels, and all employees must wear masks at work.

While the illness has not been reported at Catawba’s Asheville, Charlotte or Morganton locations, it did strike the company’s sister operation, Palmetto Brewing Co. in Charleston, S.C., where Pyatt says the head brewer showed COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive for the virus. All other employees were tested — results were negative across the board — and the brewery closed for a comprehensive cleaning.

At UpCountry Brewing Co., owner John Cochran reports that all employees get a daily temperature check before starting work and must wear a mask while on the job. Even with these precautions, he’s prepared for what would need to be done should one of his crew members test positive.

“I think about it every day,” he says. “You have no choice. You close and clean.”


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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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2 thoughts on “Carolina Beer Guy: Local breweries enact strict protocols to protect employees from COVID-19

  1. StillBeerAtHome

    Article failed to address several important points.
    The three breweries which have had COVID19 cases and closed, Wicked Weed’s Pub and Funkatorium, as well as Westville Pub, were the three most agressive in reopening. All three restaurants/breweries opened on Memorial Day weekend, as soon as legally po$$ible.
    Seems to be a disconnect between what some companies are saying, versus what they are doing (what business would actually admit putting profit over people? Certainly not one that lost all local support when they $old out to big beer!)
    Article didn’t mention these “checks” seem to be self-administered by employees, not medical professionals.
    Article didn’t clarify if the “contact tracing” was done by Buncombe Health department, with trained professional tracers, or internally by the company managers/owners.
    Unfortunately this may foreshadow the future of high volume taprooms/breweries/restaurants in Asheville. Especially if tourism picks back up.

    • luther blissett

      New Belgium’s protocol — reservation-based and outdoors only — feels like the best model, because it allows for easy contract tracing based upon who has been checked in. (It’s similar to how New Zealand handled things.)

      But it was a mistake to allow brewpubs to open while bars stayed shut: it concentrated demand in just a few locations (as anyone who’s seen the South Slope can confirm) and encouraged recklessness on all sides.

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