Getting Ready to Re-open; What can be Done to Minimize Risks?

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Restaurants are being allowed to re-open in many parts of the country, typically with some level of restriction that may vary widely from state to state.  In my home state of Massachusetts, one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, restaurants have been able to re-open as of last week – for outdoor dining only. Texas is starting phase 3 of its re-opening, with restaurants now allowed to have up to 75% capacity with 10 people per table and tables as little as 4 feet apart, with partitions between them.  Bars in Texas can go up to 50% capacity.  Minnesota also moved into phase 3 last week, with restaurants and bars able to seat at up to 50% of capacity.  Re-opening in California is on a county-by-county basis, and the State has issued comprehensive guidelines on what restaurants need to do to be able to re-open for dine-in customers.

What are the key things to make sure are in place as you re-open?  Thankfully, there are a myriad of sources to provide guidance.  For example, the FDA has issued “Best Practices for Re-Opening Retail Food Establishments During the COVID-19 Pandemic”.  The Centers for Disease Control has issued more generalized guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces. The NRA has issued its own guidance as well.  Perhaps the most comprehensive guide has come from the Aspen Institute: “Safety First; Serving Food and Protecting People During COVID-19”.

The advice, needless to say, covers a wide swathe of operating procedures and best practices.  No attempt will be made here to try to cover them all.  Instead, here is a quick summary of the broad areas these guides cover:

  • Keep the Air Flowing.   We blogged last week about some of the HVAC-related changes companies should be making to incorporate the latest best practices from ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers), including increasing ventilation rates along with the amount of outdoor air circulation. As noted in the blog, automation may be helpful in ensuring proper air flow.  You may also want to consider monitoring air pressure and humidity levels.  In addition, it may also be time to look into an investment into air purifiers that use UV or other light sources.
  • Clean, Disinfect, Sanitize. This is of course obvious, but the level and frequency of cleaning, including both food contact and non-food contact surfaces, is going to need to increase dramatically.  And, this needs to be done in a manner that lets customers see what is happening to gain confidence that it is being done effectively.  This includes having sufficient quantities of sanitizers and disinfectants that meet EPA criteria on hand – and keeping them in view.  Perhaps most importantly, you need an effective process to be in place so that you know that the procedures are being followed and can be warned rapidly when the proper actions are not being taken.
  • Expand Food Safety Processes. This is probably an area that was already getting a lot of attention, but now is the time to accelerate this process.  Make sure that all refrigeration and hot holding equipment is operating properly.  Expand efforts to examine food for spoilage, damage, expiration, or evidence of tampering or pest activity.  Make sure everything is labeled and stored properly, and review procedures related to food delivery to your restaurants – and to customers.  If you have not done so already, now is the time to automate temperature monitoring and food safety reporting.  Not only does remote monitoring reduce food safety risks, it also frees up staff time that will only have more demands on it to address safety and customer concerns.
  • Employee Health Screening. This is perhaps a more controversial area, but companies of all types that are re-opening have implemented health screening for employees as they enter the workplace. The CDC has posted guidance on this topic as well.   Organizations are deploying a variety of approaches here, including taking employee temperatures one or more times during the workday.  Again, it is important to have procedures in place to monitor that policies are being followed.  And, it is important to maintain sufficient Personal Protection Equipment for all employees – and guests that may arrive without it.
  • Finally, for this to all work you will need the proper training program, including policies and procedures to continually remind staff what needs to be done and how to do it.

The coming months are going to be challenging.  There is no way to avoid risk entirely, but with the proper policies and procedures in place, risks can be reduced significantly. There is a light at the end of this long dark tunnel, and that light will continue to get brighter as the right steps are taken.