The pandemic has changed the game for the long term when it comes to safety at restaurants. Protocols to keep people safe are no longer just in the purview of health inspectors but are also of greater interest to your customers and the general public – and an extension of the service you offer. It’s more important than ever to be able to respond knowledgeably and professionally to scrutiny and misinformation about your food safety when you are questioned about it by customers or online reviews. Support your staff by creating quizzes and contests that arm them with scientific facts they should have at their fingertips, then reward compliance. Incorporate everything from pandemic-related safety measures related to how the virus spreads, to longstanding safety measures related to handwashing, allergen safety and contamination prevention.
As of this writing, states were starting to announce changes to mask mandates and updated policies regarding how fully to open businesses. Stark differences were emerging in different regions, which may put restaurants in an awkward position in the months ahead – particularly those serving customers across state lines. Now, perhaps more than earlier in the pandemic, it’s important to scrutinize your stance on mask wearing, maintaining social distancing and other pandemic-related protocols. If your state is easing restrictions, how do you plan to manage resistance from staff and guests who are anxious about getting life back to normal? If your state is sustaining or doubling down on restrictions, how can you manage resistance from people with pandemic fatigue, knowing that your business could make news for the wrong reasons if you ease precautions prematurely? Anticipate what lines your business is unwilling to cross and how you can communicate about them in a constructive way to guests and staff alike.
COVID-19 has changed how we protect safety – and impacted consumer beliefs about the safety of indoor spaces including restaurants. A recent report in Food Safety News says while precautions like mask wearing and socially distanced seating will likely fade away with the virus, other precautions will remain. Frequent handwashing, of course, and hand sanitizer stations are here for the long haul. Beyond that, expect a general elevation of the importance of cleanliness to your brand – a need to take things a step beyond what is required in an effort to sustain consumer confidence. With every investment you make or equipment servicing you schedule, consider how well it will help you manage safety – whether it’s maintaining contactless payment and digital menus, bringing in new equipment and tools that are easier to clean, filtering the air in your facility, or managing labor in a way that considers the need for more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.
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.
As we wait for the COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed to more people across the country, we must still manage what could be an especially challenging winter for restaurants. Ongoing cases of COVID-19, on top of normal seasonal concerns like the flu, will make restaurant health and safety practices take on extra importance right now. Make your commitment to safety clear on everything from your front door to your website. Persist with mask wearing indoors and when delivering food (whether through in-house staff or a vendor), enforce social distancing in your dining areas and kitchen, and regularly ensure your facility is well ventilated, air is purified and high-touch surfaces are cleaned. It will help you earn trust from customers, and at a minimum, could help you minimize winter-illness absences on your team.
Masks will be with us for a while longer and they are critical to keep the spread of COVID-19 in check this winter. Make sure your employees know how to place, remove and care for their mask in a way that minimizes the risk for contamination. They should wash hands before and after putting on a mask, adjusting it or removing it – and only handle a mask by its loops or ties in order to avoid touching their mouth, nose and eyes. The mask should fit snugly against the face, covering the nose, mouth and chin. Throw away disposable masks or launder cloth ones after use and don’t ever share masks with others. Need help sourcing masks and other PPE? Team Four can help with that, we have an on-line store at https://www.promoplace.com/1000376/Preview
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.
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.
Face masks don’t exactly have a reputation for comfort: they get hot, hurt the ears and steam up a glasses-wearing person’s lenses with every exhale. So can a clear face shield serve as a more comfortable substitute? Unfortunately, no. A report from MIT Medical confirms, COVID-19 spreads primarily from person to person through respiratory droplets we generate when we talk, shout, sing and simply breathe – and a face shield can’t contain those droplets like a mask that fits around the nose and mouth. However, since social distancing is the key approach to preventing the spread of the virus, a person can wear a shield along with a mask around their neck that can be pulled up when they are within six feet of others -- if the nature of their job allows for that.