Ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks have infected more than one-third of the staff at In-N-Out locations in Colorado over the last seven weeks and may have started the same day the popular restaurants opened.
The twin outbreaks have grown to include 168 confirmed cases between the locations in Aurora and Colorado Springs. The company employs a total of 411 people at the restaurants, according to reports filed by local health agencies.
Those figures represent total infections since early December. Only five employees have active, confirmed infections, according to a representative for In-N-Out.
The previously infected employees have “already recovered, and are presently healthy and well,” said Denny Warnick, vice president of operations, in a written statement.
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No one has died from the outbreaks. However, the cumulative number of confirmed cases has climbed steadily, increasing by about 20 in the last week, according to state data.
“While we feel positive about the improvement, we are concerned when any member of our Associate family is affected. We continue to keep them in our prayers and we’ll also continue to take action to keep our teams as safe as possible," Warnick continued.
Infections may have started on opening day
The virus hit both restaurants soon after their grand opening and state debut on Nov. 20.
In fact, the first suspicious symptoms appeared at the Colorado Springs restaurant on opening day, and the outbreak was confirmed two weeks later, according to health department reports. The restaurant in Aurora followed soon afterward.
Over the course of several weeks, the outbreaks grew from just a few cases to several dozen at each restaurant — totaling more confirmed cases than any other restaurant location in Colorado.
“There’s always going to be a possibility of higher numbers when you have a larger workforce,” said Natalia Gayou, an epidemiologist at the El Paso County Health Department, which responded to the Colorado Springs outbreak.
“Thankfully, the restaurant worked with us from the very beginning.”
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There have been no confirmed cases of customers infected at either location, both of which only offer drive-thru and takeout service.
The El Paso health department identified one person who visited In-N-Out during their exposure period before developing COVID-19, but “based on other elements of the case history the individual had other, more likely exposures to COVID-19 and has not been counted as part of the outbreak,” wrote Michelle Hewitt, spokeswoman for the department.
“Due to the business model used for drive-thru restaurants, exposure to visitors in this setting is very low,” she continued.
The agency has monitored for customer exposure through the complaints it receives and through the investigation of cases in general, Hewitt said.
Workers came from other states
In-N-Out relies on large crews to meet the high demand. In Colorado Springs, the restaurant had 59 workers working during the course of one day last week, according to a restaurant inspector’s report. Waits for the California chain's cheeseburgers in Colorado have sometimes been hours long.
The company brings experienced employees from other states to help launch restaurants. The location in Colorado Springs had not quarantined its out-of-state staffers before they started work, the inspector’s report stated.
The restaurant later stopped importing staff because sales were slowing down, but out-of-state workers were still staying in two local hotels, according to the inspector’s report. The health department recommends that anyone traveling go into quarantine to minimize risk, and they suggested that In-N-Out staff do so in the future, according to Hewitt.
It was unclear whether the decline in business was related to widespread news reporting on the outbreak. The company estimated that wait times were less than 30 minutes at both locations on Wednesday.
High marks for response
Still, health authorities in El Paso County gave the restaurant high marks for its response, including deep cleanings and frequent disinfecting runs. The restaurant also divided its staff into cohorts to minimize the spread of the disease.
The restaurant chain employs a special “outbreak team” that traces contacts and maintains lists of employees who must quarantine, according to the El Paso report. Employees also log potential symptoms on a mobile app that can automatically put them on quarantine, the report stated.
“We remain committed to doing our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The actions that we will continue to take in our Colorado restaurants are guided by our commitment to protect the health and safety of our Customers and Associates,” Warnick’s statement continued.
The Colorado Springs outbreak resulted in one hospitalization and no deaths, Gayou said. Tri-County Health Department did not answer a question on Wednesday about hospitalizations from the Aurora outbreak and didn't respond to a request for an interview.
Health inspectors found no violations at the Colorado Springs restaurant, although they did recommend more frequent cleaning in response to the outbreak in Colorado Springs.
“We went through all those details, even down to where the employees take breaks,” said Sammi Jo Lawson, retail food program manager for the El Paso County health department.
“The challenge, being a retail food establishment, is you have quite an array of employees, and every employee has a life outside of work.”
There are more than 1,100 active outbreaks statewide. A representative for the chain declined to answer specific questions, instead providing Warnick’s prewritten statement.