When states start to reopen dining rooms, as Georgia is doing April 27, it seems a near certainty restaurants will stare down reopening guidelines from officials. Whether or not these are suggestive practices or required rules, only time will tell. Nonetheless, the best thing restaurants can do today is prepare. It’s a lot easier to take it down a notch than try to implement major operational changes last minute, especially in a multi-unit system that extends across state lines. Rules might not be the same in every market. But it’s probably safe to assume best practices will be relatively universal.
The National Restaurant Association Thursday released fresh guidance on how to reopen operations, providing a basic summary of recommended practices that can be used to help mitigate exposure to COVID-19.
It focuses on food safety, cleaning and sanitizing, employee health monitoring and personal hygiene, and social distancing.
As the Association pointed out, the guidance is meant to offer restaurants direction and provide a framework for best practices as they reopen. Not every restaurant is the same and not every opening scenario will align.
The Association partnered with representatives of the FDA, academia, the Conference for Food Protection, Ecolab, public health officials, and industry representatives to come up with this list of ideas.
Starting with food safety
Historically, the basis of restaurants’ food safety culture has been rooted in the FDA’s “Food Code.” It’s stood for decades as the foundation for operating procedures as they relate to safe food handling.
Here are some requirements of the Food Code, used by local, state, and federal regulators, that apply to coronavirus mitigation:
- Prohibiting sick employees in the workplace
- Strict handwashing practices that include how and when to wash hands
- Strong procedures and practices to clean and sanitize surfaces
- Ensuring the person in charge of a foodservice facility is a certified food safety manager
- Ensuring the person in charge is on site at all times during operating hours
What employers should know
The Association said state and local officials could tailor the application of opening criteria to unique circumstances. For instance, New York City and Alabama might have very different rules.
To prepare to comply with opening procedures, however, the Association said restaurants should update their existing policies and operating procedures in accordance with the latest FDA, CDC, and EPA guidance, and in accordance with local and state officials regarding:
- Social distancing and protective equipment
- Employee health Cleaning/sanitizing/disinfecting
- 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 sanitize utensils frequently and place appropriate barriers in open areas. Alternatively, cafeteria style (worker served) is permissible with appropriate barriers in place.
- 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 employees.
- Tips for cleaning and sanitizing as restaurants reopen
Here are some bullet points the Association provided:
- Thoroughly detail-clean and sanitize entire facility, especially if it has been closed. Focus on high-contact areas that would be touched by both employees and guests. Do not overlook seldom-touched surfaces. Follow sanitizing material guidance to ensure it’s at effective sanitizing strength and to protect surfaces.
- Avoid all food contact surfaces when using disinfectants.
- Between seatings, clean and sanitize table condiments, digital ordering devices, check presenters, self-service areas, tabletops, and common touch areas. Single-use items should be discarded. Consider using rolled silverware and eliminating table presets.
- Remove lemons and unwrapped straws from self-service drink stations.
- Clean and sanitize reusable menus. If you use paper menus, discard them after each customer use. Implement procedures to increase how often you clean and sanitize surfaces in the back-of-house. Avoid all food contact surfaces when using disinfectants.
- Check restrooms regularly and clean and sanitize them based on frequency of use.
- Make hand sanitizer readily available to guests. Consider touchless hand sanitizing solutions.
Monitoring employee health and personal hygiene
This will be one of the most critical levers for restaurants. As much as corporate guidelines and practices matter, customers will want to see these practices in action. And their biggest fears continue to center on who’s actually preparing the food. Not to mention, it matters to employees coming back what systems are in place to keep them safe. That might be goal No. 1 for operators hoping to return to some semblance of normal. Many restaurants have temporarily shut down completely because employees weren’t comfortable serving customers. Not the other way around.
Here are the Association’s guidelines:
- Per existing FDA Food Code requirements, employees who are sick should remain at home.
- If an employee becomes ill or presents signs of illness, the operator should identify the signs during a pre-work screening and follow the business’s established policies on when the ill employee is allowed to return to work. At a minimum, however, follow CDC guidelines – tell the employee to self-isolate for seven days from the onset of symptoms and be symptom-free for three days without medication.
- Taking employees’ temperatures is at the operators’ discretion. The CDC has not mandated taking an employee’s temperature 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 degrees.
- 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 three- to six-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. CDC provides overall cleaning guidance here.
- Train all employees on the importance of frequent hand washing, the use of hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content, and give them clear instruction to avoid touching hands to face.
The guide to social distancing
While nobody seems to agree on when restaurants will reopen, it’s a widely held belief that business won’t immediately return to normal. That might be a guideline issue as much as a consumer sentiment one. Officials could end up forcing specific dining room mandates, like reduced seating. Even if they don’t, many operators will take this approach regardless just to ease consumers’ fears.
Here are the Association’s tips:
- Update floor plans for common dining areas, redesigning seating arrangements to ensure at least six 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 government. Where practical, especially in booth seating, physical barriers are acceptable. Consider a reservations-only business model or call-ahead seating to better space diners
- 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.
- If practical, physical barriers such as partitions or Plexiglas barriers at registers are acceptable.
- Use technology solutions where possible to reduce person-to-person interaction: mobile ordering and menu tablets; text on arrival for seating; contactless payment options.
- 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 six feet of separation is not possible, consider other options (e.g., face coverings) and increase the frequency of surface cleaning and sanitizing.
- Note: Face coverings may be required by government officials and/or restaurant operators to mitigate the distancing gap. If not mandated, face coverings are recommended by CDC and, when worn, they should be cleaned daily according to CDC guidance.
- Limit the number of employees allowed simultaneously in break rooms.
- With larger staffs, use communication boards to or digital messaging to convey pre-shift meeting information.