How to Safely Reopen During a Pandemic

On May 1st, 2020, states around the U.S.A. began to lift some of their stringent stay-at-home measures, put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.

All fifty states began partially reopen except for Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin, all of which remain completely closed. Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island are scheduled to reopen; as well as South Dakota, which never mandated statewide closures but have since given general reopening guidelines for businesses in those individual cities that closed down. Additionally, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have partially reopened too.

By easing restrictions, or planning to in the near future, these states allow certain nonessential businesses to recommence, such as restaurants, outdoor recreation, clothing boutiques, and gyms. Who exactly can restart operations depends on the individual state and the number of confirmed cases in the area; check your state government’s guidelines to see if your business qualifies under the law.

To help restaurants during the transition, the National Restaurant Association—also known colloquially as “the other NRA” among the industry released a guide to help restaurants handle their re-entrance into the marketplace. They’ve partnered with representatives from the FDA, Conference for Food Protection, and Ecolab, as well as industry representatives and public health officials to ensure they’re giving the most up-to-date information in line with government regulations and advice.

With this guide, the other NRA hopes to help restaurants have the safest, healthiest transition possible back into full-service operations.

Health and Sanitation

First and foremost, restaurants need to institute new, more stringent health and sanitation procedures. Without proper prevention, COVID-19 will continue to spread in that environment which could potentially trigger a second wave of the virus and cause this pandemic to worsen or at the very least continue for much longer than necessary.

  • Establish and maintain strict hand washing procedures. For example, some restaurants require employees to wash at set intervals. Whatever rules you choose to put in place, remember that specific guideline are more effective than generalized directives to “wash more often.”
  • Require more intensive and more frequent cleaning and sanitation of the workspace. Remember to have employees do so everywhere, especially if your restaurant has been entirely closed during the quarantine. When you’re back up and running again, pay closer attention to frequently-touched areas, such as door handles and utensils. However, carefully sanitize rarely-used items too to stay as safe as possible.
    • Don’t use disinfectant on anything that directly touches food, such as cutting boards or any countertops that cooks use to prepare meals. Instead, wash those surfaces with soap and warm water.
  • Clean and sanitize reusable menus and discard paper menus after each use. To prevent excessive waste, consider switching entirely to reusable ones.
  • Sanitize tables, condiments, tabletop handheld devices, and other commonly-touched items between each new guest that sits there. Throw out single-use items.
  • Check and clean restrooms more regularly than usual. Use your individual discretion to determine how often they get used and thus how often they need attention.
  • Provide hand sanitizer for everyone, workers and guests alike. Put them near entrances or somewhere else noticed that people pass frequently. For an added precaution, use automatic dispensers and go entirely touch-free.

Keep a clean work environment at all times to best protect your workers and customers from contracting COVID-19 even though self-isolation measures are being lifted or eased.

Managing Employee Health and Hygiene

Your employees are the face and lifeblood of your restaurant, so treat their health and safety with the utmost consideration as business restarts. You can balance government mandates with official safety precautions to prepare your workers for success without compromising their health.

  • Ban sick employees from coming into work. If someone starts showing signs of illness, identify the symptoms quickly and reference the workplace procedures you already have in place. The CDC further mandates that sick employees self-isolate for at least a week from the time that symptoms begin until they’re no longer displaying signs of illness for at least three days.
    • You can improve your pre-screening by taking employees’ temperatures. Though the law doesn’t require it, you can opt for measures like contactless thermometers to monitor staff’s health at regular intervals, such as at the beginning of each shift. According to the CDC, a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degrees Celsius, officially constitutes having a fever.
  • Some states require people to wear face masks in public, particularly in high-trafficked or packed areas. However, some workplaces specifically require them for all their staff even if the law doesn’t. Either way, covering your face in public has proven very effective in preventing the spread of infection, so restaurants might consider making them obligatory for staff to better keep everybody safe.
    • If so, provide your workers with disposable face masks at the start of each shift or have them wash their fabric at the end of the day.
  • Reassess employee breaks to reduce how many of them mill in the break room at any given time. You can open different areas for employee breaks, allow them to spend that time outside, stagger breaks over a longer period of time or come up with another creative solution that works best for your business.
  • Develop contactless methods for you, managers and staff to correspond with one another. Communication boards, group chats and other digital platforms can easily replace in-person meetings without sacrificing clarity or effectiveness.
  • Train your employees on why it’s important to wash their hands, use sanitizer, avoid touching their face and follow other safety procedures. When people understand the reasons behind these regulations, they’re more likely to both remember and follow the rules.

Your workers are a reflection of you and your business, and they also deserve the same protections and considerations as every customer that they accommodate during business hours. By implementing new sanitation regulations for your employees, you can better protect them against COVID-19 and all other illnesses.

How to Safely Reopen

Food Safety

Along with new cleanliness measures, the other NRA’s guide to reopening full-service operations also includes information on general food safety to make sure your restaurant continues to comply with legal regulations after such a long break.

First and foremost, the person in charge must have an up-to-date ServSafe Food Manager certificate. Someone with this certification must always be on site when the restaurant is open. Presumably, that person also has other responsibilities to tend to during the day, thus it’s a good idea to train your staff up to ServSafe’s standards. Not only does this better protect the restaurant against any potential issues but also allows their superiors to focus on other pressing tasks without constantly monitoring to ensure the restaurant meets that standard.

Continue taking the usual food safety measures such as throwing out expired food, but also take additional precautions against COVID-19 specifically.

  • Install sneeze guards on communal food stations such as buffets and salad bars.
  • Change out, wash and sanitize shared kitchen utensils more often than usual.
  • If you offer to grab and go, only stock the minimum amount required to keep operations running. Low inventory and less workers needed on each shift-reduce the number of employees sharing a small space and minimizes contact with necessary suppliers.
  • For cafeteria-style operations, implement physical barriers such as sneeze guards and gloves.
  • Don’t stock drink stations in such a way that guests can freely take what they need. Instead of leaving lemons, straws and the like exposed for anyone to reach their hands into the bin, keep these items wrapped and behind the counter so customers have to ask an employee to hand them one safely.

Protect your workers and customers by continuing to practice food safety to regulated standards, as well as by implementing new measures in reaction to COVID-19 specifically now that we know the dangers posed by unprotected interactions.

Social Distancing

Despite many nonessential businesses reopening to the public, we can still try and maintain social distance even as we rejoin the world. To help with this, the other NRA’s guide has tips for keeping six feet of space inside a restaurant, both in the main area and service areas as well.

  • Post signs prohibiting anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, like a fever, from entering the premises. Consider enforcing this with the same contactless thermometer you use to check the health of your employees and screen visiting customers too.
  • Spread out your staff. Assign them to stations so that they don’t work directly next to or across from each other, and if that is unavoidable, employ other safety measures. For example you could supply face masks or have them sanitize shared surfaces more frequently.
  • Redesign your floor plan to ensure proper distance between tables. Rather than completely rearranging the layout, some restaurants have chosen to simply shut down or remove certain tables so they can ensure proper space between guests.
  • Change your waiting area to prevent crowds from gathering. Some simple ways to do this: Put down floor markings, have guests wait outside or in their cars, or implement a system where customers receive pagers or texts when their tables are ready.
  • Reduce interactions between customers and staff as much as possible. For example, if your state or local government doesn’t require face masks inside crowded buildings, you could nevertheless institute a workplace policy that mandates it.
    • Alternatively consider investing in self-service technology to further reduce contact. Mobile ordering, contactless payment, kiosks and touch-free services all promote health and safety inside your business as long as they communal devices get cleaned very regularly.
  • Put up physical barriers wherever possible. For example, you can install Plexiglas or other partitions between customers and the register.
  • Consider spacing your entrance and exit if possible to avoid crowded doorways. Similarly, ensure that guests can easily get to and from restrooms without passing close by to others.
  • Contact your third party delivery drivers, suppliers and other contractors who work with but operate outside of your restaurant. Determine their social distancing policies and inform them about your own. Together, work out a plan for how you can continue to work together while still complying with social distance measures. Curbside pickup for deliveries, face masks, health waivers and similar policies can all work toward this goal.

Despite mass reopenings, remember that COVID-19 is still a significant threat to society. Continue practicing social distancing to best avoid spreading the virus as you start to return to normal life.

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COVID-19 and the Future

With this guide, the other NRA hopes to lead restaurants through the safest possible reopening process. By their prediction, the food service industry is set to lose a total of $240B by the end of 2020 due to this pandemic. In some respects, restarting full service operations will help lower that statistic. However doing so unsafely will only lead to a massive second wave of infections and force further closures, possibly for even longer than we’ve already isolated.

To supplement their advice, the guide also links to resources released by the FDA. Their handbook, Best Practices for Retail Food Stores, Restaurants, and Food Pick-Up/Delivery Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic includes safe food handling and delivery practices, how to manage employee health and personal hygiene, food service operations and more. Though their manual isn’t comprehensive, restaurants can use it to supplement other resources such as legislative orders and the guide released by the other NRA.

As the country slowly reopens, business owners need to keep best practices in mind for food, sanitation and distancing. By doing so, restaurants can protect the health and safety of their workers, customers and community as the country’s nonessential businesses reopen their doors one by one this May.

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