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CHICAGO TRIBUNE


By GRACE WONG

CHICAGO TRIBUNE | DEC 08, 2020 AT 10:20 AM


You may be familiar with the tacos and margaritas at Moe’s Cantina, but perhaps not with the restaurant chain’s latest line of business. The two locations of the Chicago restaurant have nixed Northern Mexican fare (for now) to transform into COVID-19 testing facilities. Owner Sam Sanchez has partnered with medical professionals to oversee the testing and hired former employees to take care of the nonmedical aspects.


The venture marks the second big pivot for Sanchez’s restaurant group, Third Coast Hospitality, which includes two Moe’s Cantinas and also two locations of Old Crow Smokehouse. At the River North location of the latter, Sanchez has been manufacturing and selling masks since June while simultaneously running restaurant operations. But after the second indoor dining shutdown ordered by the state took effect in late October, Sanchez closed both locations of Moe’s Cantina. Then, in November, something happened to make Sanchez see a new need: He began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.


It took him four days to be able to get a test, for which he paid $150. He shared his positive result with his staff, encouraging them all to get tested, too. For some of them, however, it took two weeks to get tested and receive results, preventing them from working. The experience convinced Sanchez to pivot his business for the second time since March and to reopen the two Moe’s restaurants Dec. 2 as COVID-19 testing sites.


“There’s no way that should take that long,” Sanchez said of the extended waits people have endured to get tested. “People need to work, see their parents and travel. ... People need tests now.”


Sanchez, who is still making masks on top of the COVID-19 testing endeavor, said he saw a gap in available testing, especially for hospitality workers, some of whom don’t have insurance or are undocumented and face challenges in health care access. People need to know as quickly as possible if they’re negative for COVID-19, he said, so that they can return to work, earn money and provide for their families.


“The demand that we’re trying to fill are those people who need results very quickly for the reason of getting back to work, or traveling, or feeling a sense of calm as they’re trying to visit family,” said Korina Sanchez, Sam Sanchez’ daughter and the general counsel for Third Coast Hospitality.

Employees at Old Crow Smokehouse, owned by Sam Sanchez, manufacture and package face masks at the River North restaurant Dec. 7, 2020. The Moe's Cantina next door has turned into a COVID-19 testing site. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

By tapping their existing connections with Ronnie Mandal, an internal medicine doctor at Swedish Covenant Hospital, and the medical supplier they’ve been working with for mask manufacturing, Sam Sanchez turned the River North and Wrigleyville Moe’s Cantina locations into COVID-19 testing facilities.


Mandal said access to testing is a huge issue right now, even for medical professionals, and praised the new testing sites as a benefit to the community.


“I think it’s unique,” Mandal said. “Hopefully other physicians will get on board and see if this is something they can do for the community.”


With nurses doing the actual testing, and some of the restaurant’s managers helping check in patients and doing other nonmedical tasks, the team at Moe’s Cantina is using the CareStart COVID-19 rapid antigen test. The tests are analyzed in-house. Patients can register online or walk in, paying $135 for the test with a $25 discount for hospitality workers who bring proof of employment.


Patient contacts and test results are reported to the state daily and they’re fully in compliance with all the Illinois Department of Public Health requirements, Mandal said. They haven’t met their capacity yet — 200 tests a day — but anticipate more patients during the holidays.



Moe's Cantina manager Liz Duff has been trained as a COVID-19 training tech as the restaurant has turned two of its locations into COVID-19 testing sites. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Sam Sanchez, who is also the first vice chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association, believes that this could be a successful strategy for other large restaurants who remain closed because of state orders.


Korina Sanchez cautioned that this business model would probably be viable only for a few months and would require finding a medical practitioner to oversee the operation on top of a legal expert to help navigate the paperwork.


However, Sam Sanchez encouraged any restaurant that is interested in setting up a COVID-19 testing site to reach out to him for help. “I hear every story of people going under and losing everything they have,” Sam Sanchez said. “People have to make a living and we try to find a way to help them out.”


Ultimately, Korina Sanchez said, the switch is to ensure that one day they’ll be able to reopen the restaurants. Mandal said the increased testing will help achieve this goal in the long run.


“We want to encourage people to come out to Moe’s or any other local site to just get tested often,” Mandal said. “That’s the key to helping us get back to normal life.”

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