As helpful as cleaning and sanitizing surfaces in your restaurant can be, protecting your guests from COVID-19 is largely about safeguarding the air they breathe – by maintaining physical distance between your staff and guests and between guests themselves, and taking steps to purify the air flowing through your facility. In December, the National Restaurant Association updated its pandemic operating guidance to include recommendations for HVAC maintenance, the use of portable air purifiers, and the best way to protect the safety of staff changing air filters, among other recommendations. Review the new guidance here (https://bit.ly/38CbrqU).
Even after we have a vaccine for COVID-19, the virus will still be with us and there will be a portion of the population especially vulnerable to it. Much like we have adapted our kitchens and food preparation practices for those with gluten allergies, we will likely have to make long-term changes to how we operate to protect against the coronavirus. Think about the ventilation in your facility, the level of interaction among your staff, technology that enables fast and contactless payment, and seamless pick-ups. Are there changes you have made in recent months that feel temporary but could be made permanent – and might help customers feel safer with you in the long term?
As the weather cools in many places around the country, the lure of indoor dining becomes harder to ignore. While the pandemic persists, however, packing dining rooms simply isn’t safe – for guests and the staff whose health you’re relying on to operate smoothly this winter. While you’re still making use of outdoor space to serve guests, act now to make sure your indoor air is as safe as possible for everyone. Good ventilation is key, so your HVAC system should ensure a regular exchange of stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air. In a recent report from Eater, Dr. Elizabeth Noth, a researcher in environmental and occupational exposure science at UC Berkeley, advises that ventilation measures and mask wearing need to include not only dining areas but also break rooms and communal areas.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has addressed the need for good ventilation in its guidance about keeping indoor spaces safe from the coronavirus, overhauling ventilation systems isn’t typically at the top of the list of actions restaurant operators are taking to make their facilities safer right now. There are likely good reasons for that: For one, the challenging economic climate makes it difficult to fathom making a significant investment in an HVAC update. But what if there were more cost-effective ways to improve the air quality in your restaurant? Regular system inspections and maintenance, attention to cleaning products and protocols, and the reconfiguring of your kitchen and dining room can all help. This report from Modern Restaurant Management offers additional guidance (https://bit.ly/2DCTjSa).
It’s only natural to want to clean everything in sight during a pandemic – and restaurant operators, among other organizations, are embracing more frequent surface cleanings and deep cleanings in an effort to keep their business safe and project the impression that their restaurant can be trusted. Remember the true risk when focusing on operating in current conditions. A July article in the medical journal The Lancet said studies that found COVID-19 was likely to live on metal and paper for days were based on strong concentrations of the virus – in other words, 100 people would have to sneeze on the same area of a surface to recreate the testing conditions. Not so likely, right? So focus on the primary way the virus is transmitted: through the air. Assess indoor air circulation in your facility. Ensure your staff is ready to follow protocols on sneezing and coughing. Enforce the wearing of masks and the placement of people around your restaurant. A report from The Atlantic illustrates the risk of prioritizing the cleaning of surfaces as opposed to the air we’re breathing. All of this is not to say it’s not important to follow cleaning procedures that minimize the risk of contamination – just don’t let them distract from common areas of virus risk transmission. #foodsafety
How do your employees get to work? Much is said about how to properly use public transport to minimize the spread of infection, but even if your staff travels to work by car, it’s important for them to take safety precautions – particularly as many states are having to tighten their safety procedures in light of rising COVID-19 infection rates. The CDC advises people to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces of personal vehicles (e.g. steering wheel, door handles, gear shift and seat belt buckles). When using parking meters and fuel nozzles, disinfect surfaces with alcohol wipes or use a hand sanitizer afterwards. Travel with open windows or at least avoid using the recirculated air setting in a car. Finally, consider limiting the number of people in the car to only those who are necessary.
Local governments have been focusing on outdoor dining for good reason: As the weather warms and we need air conditioning to keep spaces cool, the risk of spreading virus particles can increase indoors. Recent research from the University of Oregon and the University of California, Davis, found that the path of air circulation within a restaurant plays an important role limiting the spread of the virus, particularly because the air stream in a restaurant can carry virus particles beyond the six-foot social distancing guideline. However, risks improve in situations with a window and an exhaust fan helping to manage air flow. The research team created a visual model to show the differences in transmission in a closed room where indoor air is recirculated and in a room that circulates some outdoor air through a window. While circulating outdoor air isn’t workable in every restaurant or every part of the country, Boston 25 News reports that Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, one of the authors of the research, said you can test a building for the presence of the virus and then take steps to adjust air circulation patterns to minimize risk in your facility.