Even though only two restaurants in Franklin County have had confirmed cases of hepatitis A in employees, other food establishments and events are feeling the pinch as more and more customers are opting to stay home.
In June, the Franklin County Health Department briefly closed the Jack in the Box in Union and ordered all employees vaccinated after a female employee tested positive for the virus.
All patrons who visited the fast-food chain during the weekends the employee had worked also were offered free hepatitis A vaccines.
Last week, the health department identified a similar situation at Roadhouse 100 in Gray Summit and the same procedures were put into place for that case as well.
There are four other restaurants in the county which have had ties to the outbreak as well, but according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), those cases did not meet the criteria to prompt a public response.
The Missourian submitted Sunshine requests for the names of the establishments to be released, but was denied by DHSS.
Business owners said misinformation reported by some St. Louis television stations also has hurt business.
Union Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Day says she has been contacted by at least 25 people with concerns over the growing outbreak and is worried it may affect her organization’s largest event.
The Union Chamber is preparing for its Wingfest event and Day says the Chamber is getting negative comments on social media platforms.
“Unfortunately we are already at damage control,” Day said. “People see one thing and run with it.
“People are saying they aren’t coming because of the outbreak,” she said. “But, we will not use any vendors who are not vetted by the health department and we always have.”
Day added social media can be a two-edged sword in a situation like this, both good and bad.
“That’s how most people talk nowadays,” she said. “I’m seldom at my desk and my phone rarely rings. With social media we can nip things in the bud in 30 seconds. It’s also how people get a lot of their information and rumors spread whether it’s true or not.”
Day said she can see the hepatitis A scare being an ongoing issue for the brick-and-mortar restaurants in Union and throughout the county as well and it has affected her directly.
“Me and my daughters ate at Jack in the Box and I had to go back and make sure their vaccinations were up to date,” she said. “I’m also a lot more leery about watching people while they are preparing my food.”
Despite only a handful of the hundreds of food establishments in the county being directly affected by the outbreak, Day says people are worried and the lack of customers will hurt the “mom-and-pop” businesses the most.
But, she wants to assure the public and Chamber members the organization will do whatever it can to help stop the negative wave.
“People are contacting me wanting to know the names of the other restaurants that weren’t released,” Day said. “Not only do I not know anything, but I’m not going to do or say anything to damage the businesses I work for.”
Currently, the Franklin County Commission is formulating an ordinance that would require all food service workers in the county to be vaccinated for hepatitis A at the business owner’s expense of about $105 per dose.
“I’d like to see the vaccine be required,” Day said. “I applaud the businesses who have already taken precautions, and I think this has raised awareness for employers and customers.”
Day stressed the Union Chamber will work with any businesses that might reach out for help during this outbreak and hopes any damage is short term.
The Washington Area Chamber of Commerce is shifting into full Town & Country Fair mode and President/CEO Jennifer Giesike says they haven’t had any inquiries or negativity about the hepatitis A outbreak from members or customers.
“I have not heard of anything,” she said. “I don’t know if people aren’t bothering us because we are so busy with the Fair or what. We’ve not had anything.”
Giesike noted all of the Fair vendors are inspected by the county health department and they have not had any issues.
“We are taking every precaution we can,” she said. “But, I’m not hearing a lot of concerns.”