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What Really Happened With the D.C. Bar Customer Who Allegedly Exposed a Waiter to COVID-19

A tweet describing the incident drew outraged comments online but wasn’t entirely true

An out-of-town customer on the patio at Brookland’s Finest joked to a waiter Wednesday night that he might have been exposed to COVID-19
An out-of-town customer on the patio at Brookland’s Finest allegedly joked to a waiter Wednesday night that he might have been exposed to COVID-19
Brookland’s Finest/Facebook

The situation Tony Tomelden described in a Twitter post represented every restaurant worker’s worst nightmare: a customer tells a server they tested positive for COVID-19, and the worker had likely been exposed to the coronavirus.

Thankfully, it wasn’t entirely true.

On a handle named for the Pug, his 13-year-old dive on H Street NE, Tomelden wrote, “Just learned as he was dropping a check, a table told my server they had just tested positive and he might want to get tested. So. Yeah.” The post immediately gained steam online Thursday, December 3, and attracted a slew of outraged comments ranging from food journalists decrying the customer’s allegedly brazen behavior to people wondering if the customer had received test results during the meal. In less than 24 hours, the tweet tallied more than 7,200 likes and over 700 retweets.

The morning after publishing his post, Tomelden clarified that the incident took place at Brookland’s Finest, another neighborhood bar he co-owns in Northeast, and didn’t play out as he described; his Tweet was a knee-jerk reaction to hearing a description of the interaction from a manager. The Pug has remained closed, Tomelden says, but it hosts a daytime pop-up for Peregrine Espresso.

What happened at Brookland’s Finest can be chalked up to a sarcastic comment made in poor taste that scared a server into immediately leaving the restaurant, getting a test, and committing to two weeks of quarantine in which they can’t work.

Tomelden says he was at Brookland’s Finest on Wednesday for a meeting with partners about how to get through the winter. The last tables of the day were wrapping on the restaurant’s patio, and a manager said that one of the servers had rushed to leave because a customer told the server they had tested positive, so the server may want to get tested.

According to Tomelden, the server turned in their paperwork and left right away to get tested before notifying anyone at the restaurant. Because Brookland’s Finest has been collecting contact tracing data, Tomelden was able to track down the customer, an out-of-town guest from New Jersey who said he was in town to bring his kids home from college.

The customer denied saying anything to the server, but said that both of his children had tested positive for the coronavirus in the fall. The server says the customer told him right as he was leaving the table that his kids both tested positive, so he might want to get tested, too.

Although he can’t know if the customer was telling the truth, Tomelden thinks it was a sarcastic, one-off remark.

“I can’t decide if that makes me angrier,” he says. “I’m relieved in one sense.”

“As a dad who tells terrible dad jokes, I wouldn’t have done that,” Tomelden adds.

Tomelden says the waiter has already received a negative test result. Given the circumstances, Brookland’s Finest will cover their wages while they quarantine for two weeks. While the worst scenario was avoided, the whole episode was a reminder of the high-risk work environment restaurant staffers must face while the federal government debates what sort of desperately needed stimulus their battered industry might receive.