As coronavirus spreads, restaurants try reassuring diners

McDonald’s and Starbucks are among the chains that addressed customers about steps they’re taking to prevent the disease’s spread.
Starbucks stores
Photograph: Shutterstock

As fears of coronavirus grow and projections show that people will start staying home, restaurant executives have started talking directly to their customers about steps they’re taking to minimize the virus’s spread.

“We appreciate your understanding that, as a customer, your Starbucks experience may look different as we navigate through this time together,” Kevin Johnson, CEO of the Seattle-based coffee giant, said in a letter to customers sent late Wednesday.

Starbucks told customers that the company is prepared to “modify operations” with different service-level options, in part based on what the chain learned in changes made at its China restaurants.

The company told customers that it might limit indoor seating to improve “social distancing” and could enable mobile order-only, either through the Starbucks app or delivery through Uber Eats. And in some cases the company might be open only in the drive-thru.

“As a last resort, we will close a store if we feel it is in the best interest of our customers and partners, or if we are directed to do so by government authorities,” Johnson said.

Johnson told customers that Starbucks has taken various precautionary steps and prepared its stores “to respond quickly to any emerging situation.”

The company also said it is expanding catastrophe pay for its employees so they “do not need to feel like they need to choose between their health and their work.”

Meanwhile, Joe Erlinger, president of McDonald’s USA, detailed in a letter to customers the chain’s efforts to keep its restaurants clean.

The company said it is cleaning high-touch areas such as counters and door handles more frequently and “supporting employees in staying home from work if they are sick so they can rest and recover.”

McDonald’s is also enhancing its delivery procedures “to ensure order packaging remains safe” before it gets filled with the order.

“We are keeping those affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) in our thoughts while we closely watch the evolving situation,” Erlinger wrote.

A growing number of consumer companies have been addressing customers directly through loyalty programs or email lists, seeking to assure them that they’re working to address the situation.

The Washington D.C.-based fast-casual operator Cava, for instance, told customers that it is reinforcing handwashing and increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting its restaurants. It also reminded customers that it has a paid sick leave policy and that “managers are required to send home any team members showing signs of flu-like symptoms.”

“While we are currently maintaining regular operations, we are prepared to shift to digital-order-only with pick-up through the Cava app or at our pick-up-by-car locations,” the company said, noting that it would “consider temporary closures” if directed by local health departments or “in the interest of our customers and team members.”

Nearly 130,000 people globally have been confirmed with COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering. That includes more than 1,300 confirmed cases in the U.S., a number that has grown from 70 at the beginning of the month.

Cases have been confirmed throughout the country, with serious outbreaks in Seattle, New York and San Francisco.

The spread of the virus and fear of its impact on the economy has hammered stocks and led to the cancellation of hundreds of events. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League have both suspended their seasons, while Major League Baseball is reportedly on the verge of suspending its season indefinitely.

Starbucks said earlier this month that steep sales declines in China are expected to have at least a $400 million impact on its sales in the country as a result of closed restaurants and bad traffic. The company did note that there are “no perceptible signs” of the disease’s impact on its U.S. business.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to add information from Cava.

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