The Updated Guide to Running a Safe Restaurant During COVID-19
Step-by-step, here's how to address all of the pandemic challenges.
Where to begin? It changes by the day.
Quick-service restaurant traffic and sales have stabilized, according to Revenue Management Solutions data shared with QSR. From September 18 through October 18, traffic trended negative 10 percent, year-over-year. Sales remained positive through mid-August to September, and are currently 4 percent above 2019 levels.
This traffic-sales gap can likely be credited to larger orders (higher checks), and the rise in off-premises channels. Put plainly, guest counts can’t be measured through the same lens as pre-COVID. The consumer has changed too much. For instance, McDonald’s U.S comparable sales lifted 4.6 percent in Q3 against a lap of 4.8 percent in Q3 2019. And yet traffic remained in the red. Restaurants, in general, are serving far more delivery orders in pandemic times, which tend to carry higher checks. And the solo occasion has dropped dramatically. Given the work-from-home proliferation and the shift in habitual behavior, it’s not likely to revert back for some time.
Speaking of this, RMS said dinner-year-over-year traffic is slowly and consistently improving (across quick and full service). The daypart tracked in the negative 8 to negative 10 percent range for most of the summer. Lunch transactions caught up to dinner and are presently at negative 8 percent, year-over-year. Breakfast—the most challenged COVID occasion, along with late-night—bumped slightly to negative 21 percent. This, like solo diners, is a byproduct of the routine-busing nature of coronavirus.
Punctuating the delivery surge, the channel outperformed all others in RMS’ month-long window, up 228 percent for counter-service brands. Drive-thru traffic was 15 percent higher.
Dine-in traffic down 70 percent, perhaps reflecting case spikes of late and step-backs on opening phases.
And this brings us to the present. While you might assume, nearly eight months in, guidelines would be standard for operating a restaurant in COVID conditions, the reality is something quite different. Protocol is a moving target. Officials start, stop, start, and stop again regarding what’s allowed and required. For restaurants, this purgatory state has been one of the biggest roadblocks of pandemic life.
The National Restaurant Association Wednesday, along with its ServSafe program, released an updated version of guidelines for safe operation. Like the first, it aims to provide a framework of best practices for brands trying to decipher COVID regulations.
“Restaurant operators are focused on creating safe and welcoming environments for their employees and patrons,” said Larry Lunch, SVP for science and industry at the Association. “We continue to work with our partners at the FDA and CDC as well as public health and industry to ensure that restaurants have the best information available to operate safely. These guidelines provide straight-forward practices—like wearing masks when not eating or drinking, keeping social distances, and staying home when sick—that help keep risk low for diners and employees.”
In terms of what’s new, there’s a fresh section on preparing workplaces, which addresses layouts and ventilation. There’s also additional guidelines on when and where face coverings should be worn in the restaurant, as well as how to address employee personal hygiene and health, and updates on front-of-house glove use and considerations when a worker is exposed to COVID.
Here’s a full breakdown from the Association. One thing to keep in mind: the guide is designed to be used in conjunction with FDA Food Code requirements, CDC guidance, and state and local health official information.
Guidance for employers
Operators should update their existing policies and implement operating procedures in accordance with the latest FDA, CDC, EPA, and OSHA guidance and in accordance with local and state officials regarding:
- Social distancing and protective equipment
- Employee health and personal hygiene
- Discard all food items that are out of date
- Where salad bars and buffets are permitted by local/ state officials, they must have sneeze guards in place. Change, wash, and disinfect utensils and containers that are handled frequently and place appropriate barriers in open areas. Alternatively, cafeteria-style service (employee served) is permissible with appropriate barriers in place, and where employees use PPE and limit close contact between guests.
- If providing a “grab and go” service, stock coolers to no more than minimum levels.
- Ensure the person in charge is ServSafe certified and that their certification is up to date, and provide food handler training to refresh food safety knowledge for employees.
For cleaning and sanitizing
- Thoroughly clean and safely disinfect the entire facility. Disinfect both high-touch points and seldom-touched surfaces in back-of-house, front-of-house, and guest-service areas. If a sanitizer is used, ensure it’s effective against COVID-19. Follow the manufacturers’ labels and guidance to ensure products are used correctly, safely, and for their intended purposes.
- Wash and rinse food-contact surfaces, food-preparation surfaces, and beverage equipment after use. Avoid food-contact surfaces when using disinfectants. However, if the use of a disinfectant is necessary due to COVID-19 exposure, the food-contact surface should be washed, rinsed, and sanitized after disinfectant use and prior to reuse of the surface.
- Wherever possible, assign a staff member to work the self-service drink stations, limit guest congregation/lines, and remove lemons and unwrapped straws from self-service drink stations.
- Clean and disinfect restrooms regularly and, when possible, stock them with individual disinfectant wipes.
- Make hand sanitizer readily available to guests. Consider touchless hand sanitizing solutions.
- Avoid sharing items such as menus, condiments and food orders. Use single-use or digital menus; toss single-use menus after each use. Opt for single-use condiments. Use no-touch trash cans.
- Use contactless payment options as much as possible. Ask customers and employees to exchange cash or cards by placing them on a receipt tray or on the counter to avoid hand-to-hand contact.
- Clean and disinfect any pens, counters, or hard surfaces between use or customer.
- Use disposable foodservice items (utensils, dishes). If not feasible, ensure that all non-disposable foodservice items are handled with gloves and wash according to FDA Food Code requirements. Employees should wash their hands after removing their gloves or after directly handling used foodservice items.
- Use gloves when handling and disposing of trash, dispose of gloves immediately after, and wash hands.
- Avoid using food and beverage containers or utensils brought in by customers.
- Take steps to ensure that all water systems and features (drinking fountains) are safe to use after a prolonged facility shutdown to minimize the risk of Legionnaires’ disease and other diseases associated with water.
- Preparing workplaces for COVID
Consider modifying layouts, adding physical barriers and procedures for social distancing (sneeze guards and partitions, particularly in areas where it’s difficult for individuals to remain apart), and physical guides (including tape on floors or sidewalks, and signage)
The question of air circulation and aerosol transmission of the virus is still being studied. While the issue has yet to be settled to-date, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends that every restaurant follow these steps to maintain good restaurant ventilation:
- Make sure you have regular HVAC preventative maintenance inspections and complete needed repairs.
- Conduct a test & balance of the restaurant’s ventilation system every 3-5 years and adjust and repair as needed.
- Verify that the make-up air unit is operating properly (if one is used).
- Verify that a rooftop unit’s (RTU) outdoor air economizers and dampers are operating properly.
- Verify that RTU filters, coils, drain pans, and fan blades are clean and in good working order.
- Verify that the RTU fans are in “ON” mode and operating during all operating hours.
- Verify that the restaurant temperature, humidity, and other RTU settings are appropriate to avoid high humidity and condensation indoors.
- If there are questions about the HVAC system, its operation, and/or the restaurant’s air balance, engage a trained professional.
Note from the Association: As we learn more about the role air circulation plays in COVID-19 transmission we might see specific requirements for additional controls, such as specific types of filters or air disinfection systems. However, no additional control will be effective if the steps above are not followed.
Monitoring employee health and personal hygiene
- Per existing FDA Food Code requirements, employees who are sick should remain at home.
- If an employee becomes ill or presents signs of illness, identify the signs during a pre-work screening, and send the employee home. Follow the business’s and/or local health department’s established policies on when the employee is allowed to return to work. While CDC guidelines advise isolating for seven days from the onset, and being symptom-free for three days without medication, employers can advise employees to consult with a doctor to determine when it’s safe to return.
- Taking employees’ temperatures is at the operators’ discretion. The CDC has not mandated the practice and any operator who chooses to do so should engage health officials first and adopt policies aligned with proper procedures. CDC guidance states the minimum temperature that indicates a fever is 100.4 degrees.
- Immediately notify local health officials, staff, and customers (if possible) of any possible case of COVID-19, but maintain confidentiality that’s consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other applicable federal and state privacy laws.
- Close off areas used by a sick person and do not use until the areas have been cleaned, sanitized, and, in non-food-contact areas, disinfected. Try to wait 24 hours before you clean, sanitize and disinfect, or for as long as possible within 24 hours. Ensure safe and correct use and storage of disinfectants.
- Per CDC recommendations, face coverings have been shown to be effective tools to mitigate risk from individuals who show symptoms as well as those who don’t, especially in close environments where it’s hard for people to maintain a 3- to 6-foot distance. In some states and local jurisdictions, face coverings are required by government officials; some employers require them, too. In all cases, those coverings worn by employees should be kept clean in accordance with CDC guidance.
- Train employees on the importance of frequent hand washing, the use of hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content, and teach them to avoid touching their faces, whether gloved or barehanded. Wearing gloves front-of-house is discouraged and should not replace frequent hand washing and sanitizing. If required to use gloves, employees should be taught how to put gloves on and take them off properly after each service and wash their hands.
- Ensure adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene practices for both employees and customers including soap, hand sanitizer (on every table, if supplies allow), paper towels, and tissues.
- Post signs on “How to Stop the Spread of COVID-19,” “ServSafe Poster: 101 Hand Washing,” “Promote Everyday Protective Measures,” and “Properly Wear a Face Covering.”
If an employee is exposed to COVID
- Consider asking them to stay home and self-monitor for symptoms. Certain restaurant workers—including those at restaurants offering carry-out or delivery—may refer to CDC Guidance for Critical Infrastructure Workers. Close contact is presently defined by CDC as contact for 15 minutes or more within 6 feet over two days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic individuals, two days prior to a positive test).
- CDC advises that critical infrastructure workers may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.
- Additional precautions include pre-screening (with temperature checks) prior to each shift, self-monitoring for symptoms, wearing a face mask for 14 days after exposure, and social distancing as work duties permit.
- Workspaces, bathrooms, common areas, and shared electronic equipment should be routinely disinfected.
- Check with local health departments to confirm guidelines
- Update floor plans for common dining areas, redesigning seating arrangements to ensure at least 6 feet of separation between table setups. Limit party size at tables to no more than the established “maximums approved” as recommended by CDC or approved by local and state governments. Where practical (booths, host stands, register counters), physical barriers, and partitions are acceptable. Consider a reservations-only business model or call-ahead seating to better space diners.
- Provide physical guides, such as tape on floors or sidewalks to ensure that customers remain at least 6 feet apart in lines or ask customers to wait in their cars or away from the establishment while waiting to dine or pick up food. Post signs to inform customers of food pickup and waiting protocols.
- Any social distancing measures based on square footage should take into account service areas as well as guest areas.
- Remind third-party delivery drivers and any suppliers that you have internal distancing requirements.
- Post signage at the entrance that states that no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19 is to be permitted in the restaurant.
- Limit contact between waitstaff and guests. Where face coverings are not mandated, consider requiring waitstaff to wear face coverings (as recommended by the CDC) if they have direct contact with guests.
- Encourage guests to wear face coverings everywhere on premises except when eating and drinking, especially when they have contact with restaurant staff. Post this request on your website and on restaurant signage.
- Guests’ acceptance of mask-wearing in public spaces varies, and your employees may find themselves in tense situations when trying to convey your restaurant’s mask policy. Some situations escalate unpleasantly. The Association’s free training video, ServSafe Conflict De-escalation: COVID-19 Precautions, can help them handle these situations.
- Use technology solutions where possible to reduce person-to-person interaction: mobile ordering and menu tablets; text on arrival for seating; contactless payment options.
- Consider options for dine-in customers to order ahead of time to limit the amount of time spent in the establishment.
- Provide hand sanitizer for guests to use, including contactless hand sanitizing stations, and post signs reminding guests about social distancing. Thank them for their patience as you work to ensure their safety.
- Try not to allow guests to congregate in waiting areas or bar areas. Design a process to ensure guests stay separate while waiting to be seated. The process can include floor markings, outdoor distancing, waiting in cars, etc. Consider an exit from the facility separate from the entrance. Determine ingress/egress to and from restrooms to establish paths that mitigate proximity for guests and staff.
- Where possible, workstations should be staggered so employees avoid standing directly opposite one another or next to each other. Where 6 feet of separation is not possible, consider other options (e.g., face coverings) and increase the frequency of surface cleaning and sanitizing.
- Limit the number of employees allowed simultaneously in break rooms.
- Train all employees in the above safety actions while maintaining social distancing and use of face coverings during training. With larger staffs, use communication boards or digital messaging to convey preshift meeting information.
Source: Danny Klein, QSR