As states and communities decide they have sufficiently flattened the curve of the novel coronavirus pandemic and give the green light to reopen businesses, restaurant owners are faced with the daunting task of keeping their employees and customers safe from infection.
But when it comes to implementing safety protocols, many feel like they’re in the dark: For weeks, the Trump administration delayed a CDC report that would have provided guidelines on how to do just that — because it was “overly prescriptive” — while the FDA has published guidance that mostly defers to the CDC. When the Center eventually released a guide, quietly posting it online without a formal announcement, the document devoted just four pages to food service, placing details in an appendix among other industries.
As a result, private organizations like the National Restaurant Association, José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, and others have stepped up to lay out their own logistical advice. The most comprehensive guide yet comes from the James Beard Foundation and the Food and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, a response to the persistent desire for a single, streamlined playbook.
In the 45-page guide titled Safety First: Serving Food and Protecting People During COVID-19 (divided into chapters downloadable as separate PDFs), food writer Corby Kummer compiled input from World Central Kitchen, frontline worker-focused initiative Off Their Plate, and Louisville chef Ed Lee’s the Lee Initiative for a collaborative effort that was powered by a grant from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. Validated extensively by infection-control specialist Sam Dooley, a 32-year veteran of the CDC, the guide simplifies competing protocols from around the industry into one authoritative text.
The guide takes an epidemiologist’s approach to operations, beginning with an overview of how the novel coronavirus spreads and how to control sources of infection, before drilling down on back of house logistics, including food prep, worker arrival procedures, receiving supplies, preparing takeout orders, proper PPE use, and maintaining ventilation and dishwashing systems. There are also plans for versions in Spanish and Mandarin. “Our goal is to tell chefs, managers, and restaurant owners how their procedures need to change in the era of COVID-19,” Kummer explains in his introduction to the guide. “These guidelines are first and foremost about keeping workers safe.”
But the industry-spanning collaborative effort may also set the tone for the new normal in food service. “Safety First is the start of a new social contract between everyone who works in and dines at America’s restaurants, which will be most important during the time between reopening and a wide-spread vaccine,” James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach said in a press release.
The groups behind Safety First plan to release more front of house guidance soon. In the meantime, the NRA and others already offer guidance on FOH logistics like food running, customer management, bathroom safety, and customer takeout. There’s also a wealth of alternative advice from architects, lawyers, consultants, and international restaurant groups.
Below you’ll find the latest guidelines from a number of prominent groups, which together provide an overview of leading thought on safely operating a restaurant right now.
Update: May 20, 2020, 11:07 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect federal guidelines released by the CDC.
Note: Any guidance on legal regulations in specific states have not been verified by Eater. Consult state and local authorities for the latest legally mandated requirements.
Safety First begins with a baker’s dozen of safety commandments, essentially an overview of the many areas the guide touches, from assigning a workplace coordinator on COVID-19 rules to physically restructuring the kitchen to allow for social distancing. It then covers how workers should act outside the restaurant, giving themselves home examinations for common COVID-19 symptoms, limiting exposure while traveling to the restaurant by avoiding public transit, and immediately checking in upon arrival to work for exposure screening.
It then breaks down the facility into workspaces for personal use, food prep, meal packaging, order pickup, and receiving supplies, among others. For each, there are two sets of instructions, one for organization and the other for proper workflow. For the food prep area, for example, the guide stipulates all stations should be spaced at least six feet apart and operated only by one person; hand-washing station should be within reach and complete with soap, towels, and closed-lid trash can; and signage demonstrating safety procedures should be displayed. In terms of workflow, the guide then explains how to transition from the break room to a food prep station, how often staff should wash their hands, and how often to clean and sanitize surfaces, paying special attention to porous materials like wood and cloth. A few other key points include:
- Staff should use masks to reduce the risk that asymptomatic workers spread the virus, but other PPE like gloves aren’t necessary for food prep
- To-go meals (which the guide covers specifically for deliveries to healthcare facilities, not regular customers) should be packaged in paper and cardboard, where the virus cannot survive as long as plastic, and larger orders should be packed in large, disposable boxes or bags to reduce contact
- Delivery vehicles should be cleaned and sanitized between deliveries
- Deliveries from vendors should be staggered, delivery personnel should notify the kitchen when they arrive rather than entering the facility, and disposable face coverings should be provided to anyone without one
- Ventilation should be increased to bring in more outdoor air, and stove hoods should be regularly cleaned and disinfected
- Managers should be trained to: send staff home if they feel ill, implement flexible sick leave policies, and not wait on official notes from healthcare providers to verify a worker is sick or ready to return to work
The NRA developed a 10-page guide compiling input from experts at the FDA, the Conference for Food Protection, hygiene and energy technology provider Ecolab, and academia. The guide recommends spacing tables six feet apart, installing sneeze guards over salad bars, adding physical barriers in open spaces, at registers, and between booths, and displaying signals to direct foot traffic in waiting areas and entrances.
The NRA does not go as far as Safety First on masks and temperature monitoring, noting the CDC provides instruction on measuring fevers and safe mask usage.
A few other suggestions:
- Limit party sizes and consider switching to reservation-only seating to space diners
- Utilize technology — mobile ordering, contactless payment, digital staff communications — to reduce person-to-person contact
- Eliminate table presets in favor of rolled silverware and disposable menus. If using laminated menus, thoroughly sanitize them between seatings along with commonly touched surfaces and items
- Remove lemons and unwrapped straws from self service drink stations, and stock grab-and-go coolers to minimum levels
- Plan entry and exit pathways for restrooms and sanitize facilities regularly based on use
Early on in the discussion around reopening, Black Sheep hospitality group in Hong Kong became an example for restaurants around the world, as restaurants in the city mostly avoided lockdown measures until April. The group released guidelines based their practices while operating for months during the pandemic.
The guide not only covers routine hygiene — scheduled hand-washing and sanitizing of shared surfaces every 30 minutes, deep cleaning by an external agency every 10 days — but also recommends staff maintain clean appearances: “Guests are very sensitive to hygiene and anything that even looks messy will translate to unclean in their minds, so everyone’s uniforms, hair, nails, any surfaces guests can see, it all needs to be tidy and spotless.” The group also emphasizes communicating often with customers and preparing notifications ahead of time to go out if a staff member becomes ill, which the group believes is an inevitability for all restaurants. Other key insights include:
- Locate medical facilities that can test for and treat COVID-19, and create a buddy system for team members who may face language barriers to receiving medical aid
- Collect contact details from all customers to enable contact tracing
- Offer some form of hygienic mask storage at tables like fresh paper bags or envelopes
- For larger staffs, split workers into teams that never overlap, and eliminate any travel between multiple restaurant locations
WCK contributed to Safety First, but it also put out its own recommendations. The guide includes handy step-by-step instructions for wearing and removing masks and gloves. It also suggests workers practice no-contact transfers of food items with each other and with customers. Like the JBF/Aspen guide, the WCK protocols include sanitizing delivery vehicles often and propping up frequently used internal doors.
D.C.-based architecture firm Core offers operational advice for logistical challenges. For example, masks and social distancing may cause acoustical difficulties between staff members and with guests, so owners should consider taking orders in advance or investing in digital communications to facilitate interactions. The guide also includes recommendations to:
- Install partitions to separate food prep, washing, PPE storage, and waste for disposable containers and used PPE
- Establish standard operating procedures for guest entry and exit, coordinated with protocols for food runners who should ferry orders outside for all takeout
- Upgrade HVAC systems to handle increased demand, install filters rated MERV 8 or higher, and monitor relative humidity and CO2 levels
While the report from this restaurant consulting group looks a little rough, it raises a few interesting points. It argues restaurants should take the temperatures of all staff members but not of guests because it could be off-putting. It also uniquely addresses kids, suggesting special attention be paid to booster seats and coloring supplies. The group also suggests:
- Limit parties to six people, four if possible, and limit the number of menus on each table
- Limit bathrooms to one guest at a time, and assign a staff member to monitor the bathroom, host area, and common waiting areas
- Provide laminated table-top information cards on safety practices for guests and sanitize the cards between seatings
- Display cleaning logs in plain sight of guests
- Eliminate self-serve beverages and open-top drinks in favor of bottles, and replace all condiment containers with single-use packets or washable ramekins to be replaced at each seating
While some restaurant owners voiced opposition to the state association’s plan to reopen dining rooms by May 29, the group’s “Roadmap to Reopening” does cover some unique ground that may be useful to business owners everywhere, especially instructions on screening customers for symptoms of COVID-19 and how to refuse service to possibly infected individuals.
According to the association, when interacting with a guest presenting symptoms, staff should inform management, recruit a second staff member to act as a legal witness, direct the customer to the nearest medical facility, disinfect surfaces after the customer leaves, and have a manager prepare a written statement explaining why the guest posed a risk and the decision to refuse service.
The guide also includes other unique bits of advice like sealing takeout containers to indicate to customers they’re tamper-proof, instructing staff not to dry their hands on their aprons after washing them, and sample health surveys for all staff, suppliers, and guests.
Labor-focused law firm Fisher Phillips compiled a chart including information on state laws regarding dine-in restrictions, PPE, sanitation, staff health checks, and paid sick leave.