In the old days, pre-pandemic, the line in the brick-walled basement bar of Grendel’s Den would have consisted of young customers waiting to have their ID cards checked.
These days, says owner Kari Kuelzer, it’s made up of staff members getting checked for the coronavirus.
On a recent pre-opening early afternoon, a half dozen staffers assembled amid the twinkling lights and unoccupied tables, and Kuelzer handed out testing swabs.
“This is our test kit,” she explained, opening a clear plastic bag. “It’s a vial and then 10 swabs. They self-swab. And then it goes in the vial. And off I go to Kendall Square.”
Grendel’s Den, a classic Harvard Square hangout for more than 50 years, has just become the site of a coronavirus experiment: Twice a week, the restaurant will gather nose samples from up to 10 staffers, combine them and take them for processing to the company CIC Health a couple of miles away in Kendall Square.
Combining the samples is known as pooled testing — an increasingly popular way for employers, schools and others on limited budgets to keep an eye out for coronavirus infections. If the pool comes back negative, everyone’s good. If it’s positive, each person needs an individual test.
Kuelzer has been pushing the city of Cambridge and the broader restaurant community to get more testing,” to help us essentially achieve the sort of workplace safety that they achieved at Harvard University over the course of the fall,” she says.
Frequent testing helped Harvard and many other universities keep coronavirus rates low.
“If there’s people in our community in the university setting and at large institutions that are receiving that level of protection, there has to be a way to extend it to people who are not in that bubble of privilege, of being part of a major university,” Kuelzer says.
Until recently, she says, there wasn’t an affordable way to get her staff tested, and she had to ask them to do it on their own. In November, an outbreak hit seven staff members, and Grendel’s closed.
It recently reopened, and she found that testing had evolved to the point that she could get the staff pooled testing, twice a week, for $150 each time.
CIC Health already offers individual tests, and pooled testing to big institutions like schools, says chief marketing officer Rodrigo Martinez.
“And the other piece that is missing is exactly how do you offer pooled testing to a small company, restaurant, organization, team, nonprofit, whatever it is, in a way that they can actually access it?” he says. “And this is exactly the service that we’re piloting in beta.”
By “beta,” Martinez means that the Grendel’s Den arrangement is basically a field test to see how it goes and iron out kinks, and CIC Health isn’t marketing it broadly yet. But the market could be large.
“In theory, every small business that wants testing might be in need and desire of being able to do pooled testing,” he says.
The market could also be temporary. At Grendel’s, Kari Kuelzer says she sees the pooled testing as only a stopgap until the staff can get vaccinated.
It’s a stopgap that patrons can help support if they choose, in a brand new type of tipping: They can buy their server a coronavirus test for $15.
“If you want to help this waitress or that bartender who you care about because they make your day good stay safe, you can buy them a test,” Kuelzer says.
Overall, she says, it’s so far so good for the Grendel’s Den testing experiment. The result from the first round of testing came back last week in less than 24 hours — and it was negative for the coronavirus.