Coronavirus forces restaurants to make swift operational changes

From adding paid sick leave to closing units, restaurants must make quick decisions in the age of a fast-spreading virus.
medical mask
Photograph: Shutterstock

With national and global health organizations warning Americans to expect the coronavirus to impact their daily lives in some way, restaurants around the country are altering their operations in response to the virus’s spread.

In one of the biggest operational shifts, Darden Restaurants—parent company of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen and others—on Monday launched a paid sick leave program for all hourly employees, accruable at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. Sick time can be earned immediately upon hire and can be used after 90 days of employment.

Up to 40 hours of Darden employees’ unused sick time can be carried over from year to year, with a maximum balance of 60 hours, the company said.

COVID-19’s spread has also forced the closure of a number of restaurants.

Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) concept The Modern closed Monday after learning that Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who had recently dined there, had tested positive for the respiratory illness.

“[New York state] Health Commissioner says no risk of transmission,” USHG CEO Danny Meyer tweeted Monday evening. “We’ve nonetheless chosen to close & sanitize every inch. Reopening tomorrow. Team & guests come first.”

A Panera Bread in Council Bluffs, Iowa, closed for several days for a deep cleaning after a worker there showed symptoms of the coronavirus, according to local media reports. Panera did not immediately respond to a Restaurant Business request for comment on the situation.

An entire restaurant group in Seattle, with concepts including Steelhead Diner, Blueacre Seafood, Orfeo and more, announced it would temporarily close all of its locations “due to the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus,” according to a Facebook post and Eater report.

“We hope to reopen at a later day,” the operators said.

A Starbucks in downtown Seattle closed last weekend after an employee tested positive for the virus.

The coffee giant has barred customers from bringing in their own coffee cups for refills, with other chains following suit, including Dunkin, San Francisco-based Peet’s Coffee and Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee and Dark Matter Coffee.

“Currently, we will only fill the customer’s order in our compostable cups to decrease the possibility of spreading germs and will continue to do so until we feel the health and safety of our staff and customers is secure,” a Dark Matter representative told the Chicago Tribune.

Tim Hortons axed its promotional Roll Up the Rim campaign, set to begin Wednesday, over concerns about the virus, forcing it to pull 81 million cups designed for the contest, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.

"In the current public health environment, it just doesn't seem like the right solution to run the cup program, where people are using their mouths to roll up the rim and tearing it off to give to team members and having team members need to dispose of those," Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer of Tim Hortons parent company Restaurant Brands International Inc., told the Globe and Mail.

Third-party delivery provider Postmates added a “non-contact” drop-off option for consumers who, “for health and other reasons,” would rather not interact with a delivery driver.

In Austin, where many segments of the local economy are reeling after the cancellation of the annual South by Southwest music and technology event, restaurants and bars are seeking to unload the product they’d stocked for the 10-day festival. Area restaurants are offering food and drink specials, according to local media reports, and a Facebook group was created to help operators buy, sell and trade their SXSW excess.

A number of restaurants are stepping up their sanitation efforts in the wake of the coronavirus, including Atlanta quick-service stalwart The Varsity, which has added a shift position solely focused on sanitation.

“That’s all they do,” Varsity President Gordon Muir told Atlanta’s AJC. “Start at the front door and continue around the whole building and wiping doors, tables, napkin holders on the table. That’s all this person does all day long.”

The chain is also serving drink refills in fresh cups, according to the report.

One three-unit Southern California concept is taking coronavirus preparedness a step further. Sichuan Impression is using infrared thermometers to screen prospective customers for fever before allowing them to dine, according its Instagram post. The restaurants are also offering discounts on to-go orders.


More coronavirus resources

How restaurants can prepare for a coronavirus pandemic.

The National Restaurant Association has guidelines for the coronavirus and what restaurants can do.

The CDC has interim guidance for what employers can do to respond to the coronavirus. It also has a checklist for employers to prepare for pandemic influenza.

The WHO has guidelines for workplaces to get ready for COVID-19.

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