We’re all suffering from Covid fatigue – and a desire to get back to some semblance of pre-pandemic life. But restaurants are in a tough spot: They will likely be unable to relax pandemic safety policies while local regulations continue to change and the public’s concerns about safety rise and fall with the presence of new virus variants. (And for some time still, customers will be taking precautions based on their personal health and vaccination status.) How does a restaurant keep pace with the shifting environment – and keep staff informed about ever-evolving regulations? A recent report in The Atlantic about how we might manage the virus going forward may provide some clues. Several experts interviewed for the piece, including an infectious disease physician and global-health expert, anticipate we will adopt a tiered system of response – similar to how we categorize and respond to hurricanes. Rather than flipping a switch – masks or no masks, well-ventilated indoor dining or no indoor dining at all, for example – we can expect gradations. Future approaches will likely include pieces of the safety protocols you have had to adopt over the past two years – with some choice involved in how far a business goes. Going forward, how can you adapt your training procedures to flex with current environmental risks, as well as to concerns of employees and customers? Consider how you can provide just-in-time updates to trainees by packaging and delivering the content in new ways.
The holidays may be a time to kick back and celebrate – but don’t let your guard down when it comes to Covid safety. In the U.S., 5 percent of the population has some kind of immune-compromised condition, so even though the vaccine is widespread, unventilated gatherings can still pose problems. Ensure good air flow through gathering rooms in your facility, make sanitizer accessible and ensure any policies you have on guest vaccination, testing or masking are clear to your team and communicated to guests.
As flu season dovetails with the Covid-19 delta variant in the coming months, you can expect a rise in employee illnesses and even just false alarms that nonetheless require you to exercise extra caution when serving guests. The reservations platform Resy recently announced it is offering a free way for restaurants to track employees’ proof of Covid-19 vaccination, test results and other details used to track symptoms of illness. Restaurant Business reports that Resy has partnered with Clear to offer Clear’s Health Pass technology through 2022 to restaurants using Resy.
As restaurant dining rooms reopen and the weather beckons people outdoors, operators may find themselves in the awkward position of wanting to welcome people looking to gather and celebrate, while also accommodating the safety concerns of guests, staff and inspectors alike. Establish a clear protocol for how your team is balancing these concerns – and share it on your website, social media and in your booking confirmations to help inform guests before they join you. Finally, empower your staff to gently reinforce your safety protocols as guests arrive – and as needed once they’re dining – since they may still be getting used to the new rules of dining out too.
You are likely hiring more staff as we emerge from the pandemic – and you may feel that having vaccinated employees may make patrons more comfortable about dining with you. So can you require vaccination of new hires? In general, yes, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). For example, as a recent Q&A from the National Law Review indicates, an employer can ask if a candidate has been vaccinated and require proof of that vaccination. What could pose difficulty under the Americans with Disabilities act is asking an unvaccinated person why he or she hasn’t been vaccinated, which could elicit information about a disability. https://www.natlawreview.com/article/eeoc-says-employers-may-mandate-covid-19-vaccinations-subject-to-limitations
While more frequent handwashing and use of alcohol-based sanitizers may be keeping bacteria at bay in your restaurant, they may also wreak havoc on skin during the winter months. Dry, cracked, itchy, flaky or even bleeding skin can result – and increase the risk of infection. While washing with lukewarm water and using moisturizers can help, the use of ointments or creams isn’t practical when preparing food. Encourage your staff to take extra care of their skin when they are away from work. The American Academy of Dermatology Association advises moisturizing immediately after washing hands and using a squeezable, fragrance-free, mineral oil- or petrolatum-based cream or ointment. Doing so is especially important after applying alcohol-based sanitizers, which can be more drying for skin.
When one of your employees is sick, do they feel there will be negative consequences if they report it to you? To be sure, restaurants are shouldering existential challenges right now and need to be able to rely on their teams. But make sure you prioritize safety – even if it means being temporarily short-staffed. The Centers for Disease Control have been emphasizing employee self-reporting of symptoms during the pandemic – and encouraging transparency with your team may help you avoid a larger safety problem. You can help by keeping up with daily health screenings for all employees, along with regular training to reinforce that you value the safety of your people and want everyone to be healthy – but won’t take punitive action if they aren’t.
Are your customers always right? Of course not. But for decades, many restaurant operators have behaved this way, aiming to accommodate anything customers request or demand (and sometimes taking abuse in the process). Many customers have adopted the expectation that this is okay. But the pandemic may spur a change in thinking. Right now, your ability to operate safely and continuously, retain your employees, minimize staff illness and prevent the spread of the virus requires firm boundaries. What lines are you unwilling to cross for customers? Consider how you would respond to everything from lapse in social distancing in your dining room to a tantrum from an unmasked customer. Be clear about your policy with employees, provide language to help them handle a difficult situation professionally, and back up your team as needed. (This applies to abuse you receive from customers online too.)
While pandemic fatigue set in long ago – and may have resulted in some lax health and safety behaviors on your staff by this point – the next few months will require extra vigilance. At the time of this writing, the more-contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus had begun to spread to other countries including the U.S. The longer the coronavirus is around and causing more infections, the more opportunities there will be for new mutations of the virus to occur. Dr. Stuart Ray, an expert in the virus that causes COVID-19 and vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said human behaviors are especially important to containing the virus as new strains emerge. “We need to re-emphasize basic public health measures, including masking, physical distancing, good ventilation indoors, and limiting gatherings of people in close proximity with poor ventilation,” he said. “We give the virus an advantage to evolve when we congregate in more confined spaces.” Beyond those measures, reemphasize the importance of no-contact food deliveries and pickups. Further, as the vaccine becomes more widely available to essential workers including foodservice staff, have an ongoing dialogue with your team about vaccination – and the science backing its safety. While you may not want to mandate vaccination, you can encourage staff to get the vaccine by offering to cover associated costs, as Chipotle’s Brian Niccol announced the brand will be doing.
Contactless ordering and payment have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic – and to be sure, they are safeguards guests appreciate. But there are many other touchpoints in your facility that concern consumers right now. Trace the path of a typical guest in your restaurant – are there touchpoints you can remove or other safeguards you can apply to make them more sanitary? Do guests have to touch parts of your trash bins – both those in restrooms and others placed in or around your dining rooms – to discard waste? Do they have to hand over a table marker to claim their order? When they visit a restroom, do they have to use an air dryer that can spread contaminants through the space? If possible, place contactless paper towel dispensers in restrooms and near bins or compactors. Help limit the need to touch dispensers and door handles throughout your facility – or make it possible for people to sanitize their hands afterwards.