Count on it: Someone on your team is apt to come down with an illness this winter. How should you prepare? And how do you know if it’s flu or COVID-19, which requires a different kind of response from you? First, make sure you and your team are clear on how symptoms of the flu differ from those of the coronavirus and other milder illnesses. While there are strong similarities between COVID-19 and the flu, COVID-19 can involve some odd ones, like the sudden loss of a person’s sense of smell. As a recent New York Times report advises, this is the year to urge everyone on your staff to get a flu shot as an extra precaution.
COVID-19 infections continue to climb in the U.S. and since virus symptoms can take up to two weeks to emerge, it’s probable that at some point in the coming months, one of your team members will contract the virus or be exposed to others who have. Operators should have a clear plan of action to follow when this happens, to include sending the sick employee home, closing down any areas used by the employee, informing other staff of the infection, and then cleaning and sanitizing the affected areas in your restaurant. In the meantime, consider what support you would need to operate if and when one or more employees cannot come to work. Ensure there are multiple people cross-trained in daily tasks so you can avoid training someone on the fly. Also consider how you could adjust your seating or traffic flow if you had to temporarily close off any areas of your restaurant for cleaning and disinfection.
You may have found ways to socially distance tables in your dining room, invent curb-side pickup service outside your restaurant or create an outdoor eating area where one didn’t exist before – but how feasible has it been for you to make the changes to your kitchen that the pandemic has mandated for safety compliance? Restaurant kitchens generally conjure images of busy, loud spaces where people collaborate side by side, proper ventilation is a challenge and mask wearing can hinder both communication and comfort. That model doesn’t work anymore – so what can be done to both keep your kitchen busy with food preparation and minimize risks to staff? Futuristic Labs founder Goutham Gandhi says automation, which has become the norm in so many other facets of our lives, still has a long way to go in the kitchen – and the pandemic may fast-track its deployment. In a recent Modern Restaurant Management report, he predicts that the use of tools such as Riku, an automatic rice and curry maker that creates a range of recipes, will become the norm. This winter may prove telling in that area, particularly if and when operators experience last-minute labor shortages due to illness or lockdowns. Even if the automation of food preparation tasks isn’t practical for you, it’s still important to assess your menu and identify ways to minimize the labor and time required to prepare it. That may involve incorporating more speed-scratch and frozen foods, and identifying areas where labor-saving tools, technology or procedures may help you do more with less staff.
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
On July 4th weekend, a San Francisco wedding celebration reportedly became a breeding ground for COVID-19. Following a rehearsal dinner gathering of 40 guests at the Harborview Restaurant and Bar, the wedding couple and at least eight of their guests from across the country tested positive for the virus. But according to an Eater report that addressed reviews of the restaurant’s policies for managing groups, as well as information relayed by a restaurant spokesperson, Harborview seems to have done everything right: They took such steps as spacing tables six feet apart, separating guests by household or family unit, plating food that they had previously served family style, and reminding guests to wear face coverings. After the outbreak, employees were tested and results came back negative. So what is a restaurant to do when it follows guidelines and takes the right precautions but must bear the brunt of bad publicity after an outbreak? Start by going on the PR offensive, collecting facts to demonstrate your commitment to safety, and sharing them with the media and on your social platforms. Partner with your health officials and describe what precautions you have taken, from new employee training procedures and protocols to virus testing to signage advising guests how to maintain safety – and publicize their findings in the news media, on your website and on your social networks. Take photos and video of your facility, introduce staff and talk about how your policies have changed since COVID-19. Finally, for the moment, rethink catering to weddings – and other gatherings where people set out to socialize and celebrate with friends and family, consume alcohol, and perhaps let down their guard and ignore precautions. They may be best left to large outdoor settings or until after a vaccine is readily available.
Like just about everything in a restaurant right now, technology is taking on employee health. New tools are helping restaurant operators test, record and even respond to employee health risks that may result in the spreading of a virus. Restaurant Business reports that DayMark’s Task Management app and Receiving Module record employee health details, including temperatures taken with an infrared thermometer. If the system identifies the person as “sick”, they cannot be assigned tasks. The same goes for a delivery driver, whose shipment can be refused if he doesn’t pass the health assessment. #foodsafety
Amid the spread of COVID-19, it’s only natural to be more concerned about the health of other people and whether you or your team could inadvertently be spreading infection. Just make sure that when hiring new staff and monitoring your team’s health, you comply with regulations and understand where existing and new regulations overlap. The National Restaurant Association reports that, for example, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act rules continue to apply in the current pandemic, they do not prevent you from following the COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention or state and local public health authorities. So during a pandemic, you can ask staff about disabilities or require medical exams of employees who don’t have symptoms, since it is a means of identifying people at higher risk for complications. You may also take a person’s temperature and ask about potential exposure during a person’s travels. Just remember privacy and confidentiality requirements under the ADA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The spread of COVID-19 – and the reality that employees in the U.S. may become ill or need to self-isolate in the coming weeks and months – has cast a spotlight on companies’ paid sick leave policies (as well as those that lack them). A New York Times report said despite long-time concerns from restaurant owners, retailers and other employers, studies have found these policies to be effective: one study found that policies requiring paid sick leave reduced cases of flu by 11 percent in their first year and another found that the policies cost employers 2.7 cents per hour of paid work. The report said there has been no demonstrable decline in hiring or a reduction in wages or other benefits as a result of the policies. Granted, times are different as we operate during a pandemic and operators are being required to accommodate updated health and safety standards. However, your willingness to enforce policies to keep your staff and customers safe in the long term will also help protect your business as you manage the added challenge of flu season in the coming months.
Even in the midst of mass unemployment and deep uncertainty, restaurants that have found a way to remain open are somehow continuing to make their customers and communities feel cared for. But what about caring for the restaurant employees who are taking the risk of coming to work and serving the public right now? Or the millions of others who are currently out of work? Challenges to employees’ physical, mental and financial health abound right now. There are ventures springing up throughout the country to help. Efforts like Furlough Kitchen and HospitALLity House are helping to address hunger by providing free meals to laid-off hospitality workers. A charity organization called No Us Without You launched in Los Angeles to help undocumented restaurant workers in the city. Restaurant Careers and Hospitality Relief Dashboard are offering leads on grants, interim work and other assistance. Finally, a list of resources, https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-how-to-help/#restaurants-and-food-workers, from CNN includes links to other sources of support for restaurants and food workers, as well as suggestions for communities looking to help the industry right now.