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.
Many restaurant operators managing the stress of rebuilding business are encountering an extra challenge: how to ease their employees’ anxiety about everything from wearing face masks during service to handling guests who aren’t respecting your new safety procedures. People who are comfortable in their work environment are more effective employees – and are more likely to stay employed with you too. A Restaurant Business report (https://bit.ly/2XgBuQd) highlights efforts a number of operators are taking to ensure employees get the emotional support they need, as well as the training required to handle current stresses. When in doubt, communicate with your team – by regularly surveying them about what’s working and what isn’t, giving them a point of contact and other resources to turn to at any time with concerns, and using tech-based communication platforms to help keep them informed about what’s happening with your business each day.
Even during pre-pandemic times, menus were among the dirtiest items in a restaurant. How you present your menu now can not only make a difference to the safety of your business, but also send a message to your community about how you are protecting their health right now. If you can, opt for chalkboard or digital menus that can be adjusted as needed and don’t need to be discarded after each use (like paper menus). If you use laminated menus that can be cleaned, follow the proper precautions: Food Safety News advises cleaning and disinfecting them after each use with a soft cloth, separating used menus from clean, avoiding harsh chemicals or submerging menus in water, and letting menus dry completely before reuse. One alternative to this in your dining room is posting each side of your menu under glass on each table for easy viewing and cleanup.
It can be easy to get caught up in the new bells and whistles that may protect the safety of your restaurant and improve guests’ perception of your safety practices in the months ahead. But you can take some comfort in focusing on the key food safety practices you had been following – plus ensuring your employees wear a mask. A recent survey of 1,000 adults by the International Food Information Council Foundation found that of the food safety actions businesses can take right now, consumers view the wearing of protective equipment, frequent cleaning, the wearing of gloves while working, and the availability of sanitizers or wipes as the most important. While top responses were consistent from April to May, having employees wear masks while working jumped to the top of the list in May – at 36 percent. It sends an extra signal to guests that you value their safety.
If takeout meals, meal kits or refrigerated meals to be prepared at home represent a larger percentage of your business right now – or you suspect they will in the future – make sure your packaging and heating instructions have kept up with the changes. Prepare clear cooking and reheating instructions and label your packaging accordingly (and don’t forget to list common allergens). If food can be refrigerated or frozen, include consume-by dates too.
Restaurants in many parts of the country are trying to navigate this strange in-between phase in which businesses are beginning to open and welcome customers back inside their doors. Your employees, customers and you may still be unsure about how to adequately protect everyone’s health at this stage – and people’s concerns about how to balance health and economic challenges still run the gamut. As much as you can, use clear signage at your front door and on your website homepage about your restaurant’s current safety policies and the wearing of masks indoors and when social distancing is difficult. If you are being stringent with employees about the wearing of masks, make sure you have extra masks at your front door so any unmasked person entering your restaurant can wear one too – and politely refuse service to anyone who doesn’t cooperate. It’s possible to welcome people back and emphasize how much you have missed them while also ensuring you protect your business in the ways you and your state authorities see fit.
Restaurants are used to having to protect food safety and minimize the chances of employee illness transmission and injury on the job, but the current situation requires extra precautions. First, ensure your staff is clear on your new protocols, and provide any new rules verbally and in print, and in different languages as needed. When you need to talk as a group or exchange documents, use technology as much as possible to limit in-person interactions. Within your establishment in both the front and back of house, make it easier to follow social distancing protocols and avoid congregating by marking off areas on the floor to separate people, tables and preparation areas. Take extra care with your handwashing stations to ensure they are well stocked – scrubbing with regular soap is the best defense against the spread of both the coronavirus and foodborne pathogens. Finally, make sure your team knows you take safety seriously: It’s a given that if they are sick or show symptoms of illness, they should not feel pressured or incentivized to work. But what’s your protocol if employees have recently been in contact with an infected person but have tested negative themselves? Anticipating your responses to such questions can help protect your team and business.
As restaurants and other businesses reopen and people gather in greater numbers, there is a risk of increased cases of Covid-19. Your cleaning practices, cleaning materials and labor scheduling plan needs to keep pace with the new environment. Chris Boyles, vice president of food safety at Steritech, told Restaurant Dive that cleaning costs will look different for restaurants now. For example: Do you have sufficient staff on hand to carry out your enhanced cleaning procedures? Are you using disinfectants that have been approved by the EPA for use against COVID-19? If one of your employees tests positive for the virus and you need to close your premises for cleaning, what will it cost to hire a third-party disinfection service if required? Anticipating these costs and planning for them may help you avoid having to pay more than needed as you ensure your business is clean and ready to serve guests.
If you are transporting food to customers or using outside providers to do so, make sure the steps you are taking to keep your facility clean and sanitized are also being used to keep food safe in transit. Beyond practicing social distancing when dropping off food and offering no-contact deliveries, the FDA advises the regular wiping down of surfaces within delivery vehicles and on touchpads using household cleaning sprays or wipes. Secure the wrapping and packaging you use for takeout food to prevent contamination and regularly clean and sanitize the coolers and insulated bags you use to carry food for delivery.
Cleanliness has new importance right now – both to your employees and your customers. As you prepare to bring people back into your establishment in greater numbers, promote the actions you are taking to protect everyone’s health and safety. Hyatt, for one, recently announced it is revamping its cleanliness guidelines and appointing a hygiene manager to each of its hotels in the coming months to ensure adherence to the new procedures. Now could be a good time to update your own cleaning procedures and do the kind of deep cleaning and disinfection that is difficult to take on in busier times. When is the last time you steam cleaned your walk-in cooler? Beyond cleaning and disinfecting surfaces such as tables, counters, touchscreens, faucets and light switches, focus on hard-to-reach areas in and around appliances, remote controls, keyboards and other electronics with recessed buttons that can harbor pathogens. While carrying out these cleaning tasks is simply part of running a restaurant, the public has never been more interested in knowing how you’re keeping them safe.