Health & Safety: Opening During The COVID-19 Pandemic

The early part of 2020 seemed promising for many. But by mid-March, COVID-19 was widespread enough to warrant sweeping closures of businesses across the United States. For the restaurant industry, the stay-at-home orders have been particularly devastating.

A recent survey found that two-thirds of restaurant employees have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak. That’s over eight million employees who have been laid off or furloughed, with the industry projected to sustain a staggering $240 billion in losses by year’s end. With so many people staying at home and the majority of eateries shuttered, restaurant sales are the lowest they’ve been in over 35 years.

Restaurant owners and operators are in an unprecedented fight to stay afloat. Privileges we took for granted no longer exist. The actions we used to perform automatically are no longer enough to keep people safe and our doors open. As you make plans to help protect your livelihood, there are a few factors to keep in mind while reopening, welcoming back guests, and adjusting to a new “normal.”

Restaurant Food Safety and Beyond, According to the CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC)  has issued guidelines to help bars and restaurants slow the spread of COVID-19. Its recommendations include:

  • Implementing sick leave policies that help assure employees feel empowered to be transparent when symptomatic without fear they’ll lose their jobs
  • Instructions on what symptoms to look for and when it’s safe to return to work
  • Strict hygiene protocols including frequent handwashing for all employees and the use of sanitizer when soap and water aren’t readily available
  • Mandating cloth face coverings for team members
  • Signage that details what protective measures are in place and what the business expects of its guests
  • Ensure all tables and/or seats and stools are at least six feet apart, blocking unusable seats to guarantee physical distancing
  • Limit occupancy to no more than 50% (this number varies from state to state – Alaska, for instance, has limited restaurant capacity to a mere 25%)
  • Eliminate waiting areas and instead ask guests to stay in their car until their table or takeout food is ready
  • Regularly cleaning and disinfecting all high-touch surfaces such as door handles, countertops, bathroom stalls, sink handles, cash registers, POS terminals, receipt trays, etc.
  • Limit the use of shared items such as food prep equipment and serving spoons, and turn to single-use items (disposable menus, paper napkins, plastic silverware, condiment packets, etc.) whenever possible
  • Offer contactless payment and pickup options
  • Offer outdoor seating where feasible
  • Use physical barriers such as sneeze guards over the bar and partitions between tables
  • Stagger staffing to limit the number of employees on-site at any given time to help with physical distancing
  • Switch to a reservation-only model. Eliminating walk-in business allows for more thorough planning and prevents crowds from gathering while they wait for tables

It’s vital to note that the CDC’s recommendations are not universal mandates. Many states, counties, and cities have individual requirements in place that take precedence. Make sure to stay up to date on evolving policies and agency recommendations regarding distancing, group gatherings, and other relevant issues.

Find Ways to Improve Revenue Without Sacrificing Safety

  1. Outdoor Dining
    In addition to ramping up takeout, curbside, and delivery options, you may want to look at expanding outdoor seating. Some cities in the United States and Canada are taking a cue from European sites that are transforming low-traffic roadways and parking lots into alfresco dining spots.Brookhaven, Georgia, started issuing 90-day outdoor dining permits in April. In Minnesota, the Department of Transportation is considering allowing businesses to use state-operated roads and adjacent sidewalks, parking lanes, and green spaces to extend their dining rooms. 

    Cincinnati is in the process of closing sections of 25 streets following Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s decision to allow restaurants to implement outdoor seating weeks before indoor dining was allowed.

    In Toronto, the CaféTO program has expanded outdoor dining options for bars and restaurants into public right-of-way spaces. Likewise, it’s aiming to expedite the application and permitting process for being able to offer sidewalk cafes and sidewalk extensions.

  2. Cocktail Kits 
    If you’re in one of the areas where officials have chosen to relax liquor laws and allow for liquor takeout and/or delivery, you can create DIY margarita kits or put together everything customers need to make Moscow mules at home. It not only gives you another revenue stream, it also helps customers replicate the celebratory feel of happy hour or a meal out in the comfort and safety of their homes.

Takeout, Curb-side Pickup, and Delivery

The CDC rated several types of restaurant and bar services according to the associated risk. Not surprisingly, on-site dining without social distancing measures in place presents the highest risk. Limiting service to drive-thru, takeout, and curb-side options present the lowest risk.

It’s common in the restaurant and bar industry to estimate revenue potential by calculating how much you can make per seat per hour. Remove seating and you automatically remove revenue. Finding other ways to get food to consumers helps mitigate the damage seat loss can cause.

But takeout only goes so far – a restaurant that does 600 covers in-house on an average night simply can’t pivot to 600 takeout orders a night without significant restructuring.

The good news is that restructuring is possible. Since the CDC and other experts are predicting COVID-19 could return in cycles, perhaps in tandem with the pre-existing flu season, investing in training and even remodelling won’t go to waste:

  • Offer customers increased restaurant delivery safety courtesy of contactless delivery, with digital payment and food dropped off outside their front door to limit face-to-face interactions. Consider similar procedures for pick-up orders, including online ordering, digital payment, and curb-side pickup or placing orders on a table for customers to grab without breaching the six-foot barrier.
  • Equip delivery drivers with masks, gloves, and sanitizing liquid to help with safe restaurant delivery and protect for staff and customers.
  • Provide reassurance to customers whenever and wherever possible. On your website, share links to the FDA, which states, “Currently there is no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

Plan for Your Reopening

As stay-at-home orders begin to lift and restaurants and bars are allowed to open their doors once again for dine-in business, carefully planning will be more important than ever. It’s impossible to adhere to CDC guidelines and local regulations without having a comprehensive strategy in place:

  • Stock up on supplies. From soap and sanitizer to masks and menus, you’ll need a lot of cleaning products and personal protection gear. With supply chains still a little shaky, it’s a good idea to establish connections with several purveyors just in case one runs low on the items you need. You’ll also want to order future deliveries well in advance. Anything that’s shelf-stable can be put on auto-delivery or stashed in your stockroom just in case that typical three-day dry goods delivery takes a little longer than before.
  • Deep clean and fully sanitize your space. Start with a clean restaurant and it’ll be easier to keep it that way. This isn’t just about a spring cleaning, either. Tackle everything from the floors and walls to staff headsets and the knobs on the thermostat.
  • Consider changing your layout. Unless you designed your restaurant for social distancing at the outset (and who would?), it’s time to make some adjustments. Some restaurants are choosing to restructure their seating and table configuration entirely to create safe zones and keep parties separate from one another. In spaces where moving tables isn’t feasible (if you have booths or built-in seating, for instance), you may have to block certain sections or cover every other booth.
  • Adapt your outdoor space. If you’re adding outdoor dining and didn’t offer that option previously, you’ll need to add extra POS terminals, sanitizing stations, and weather protection such as umbrellas.
  • Create highly visible signage. List customer safety guidelines and put up physical barriers, as necessary. This may include signs on doors telling customers they must wear a mask to enter. You may also use tape or other markers on the floor to help guests maintain at least six feet of distance while dining in or waiting for their to-go orders.
  • Create your marketing plan. Leverage social media, start an email list, hang banners above the front door – do whatever it takes to get the word out that you are in fact open and eager to get back to business. Uncertainty is everywhere, and the public is craving a taste of their favorite places. Let them know you’re there for them.
  • Reduce menu items. It’s simply not possible to add delivery services and sanitize after every customer while maintaining a 10-page menu. Focus on popular items, those with higher profit margins and any dishes you can create quickly without sacrificing quality. Turning tables will be a crucial part of funnelling enough money into the till to keep the lights on, and the faster you get food out, the faster guests can eat and run.

Looping in Employees

This part of your reopening plan is so critical it deserves special emphasis.

Your restaurant doesn’t run without your employees. Period. Your staff plays an enormous role in how efficient your business will be, how customers will feel about their experience, and whether or not anyone will return. You want your team to be happy.

As soon as you know you’re reopening, create a timeline and send it to employees. They’ll need to make plans for child care and personal protection equipment, not to mention preparing mentally for a workplace that will likely look a lot different than it did a few months ago.

Share your game plan so everyone knows what to expect and what’s expected of them. Be clear about your sick leave policy, how/if you’ll be screening employees before their shifts, and what they should do if they come down with known coronavirus symptoms.

Training is essential. Don’t assume everyone knows the steps for proper hand washing or what it takes to clean surfaces effectively. Instead, take advantage of online training videos on hand washing, hygiene, sanitation practices, and operations strategies such as safe takeout and delivery protocols.

Whether you’re just launching a business in the shadow of COVID-19 or adjusting a new business after a bit of time in the industry, getting expert assistance could make the difference between sinking or swimming. RestoHub’s extensive catalog of restaurant resources includes everything from information on basic licenses and permits to innovative ideas on how to drive revenue and connect with customers even during a pandemic.