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How restaurants can prepare for a coronavirus pandemic

As virus fears grip the country, experts stress planning and good food safety practices to reduce risk.
Photograph: Shutterstock

As coronavirus fears gripped the world this week, more attention has focused on challenges restaurants often face in keeping sick workers home—and how that could exacerbate the spread of a virus many experts believe is destined to become a global pandemic.

As of Friday, there were 82,294 confirmed cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, worldwide, the vast majority of them in China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the virus is spreading quickly outside of China, with the number of cases jumping 25% on Friday alone.

In the U.S., there were only 59 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Friday. Yet public health officials said that coronavirus is likely to spread here.

“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, at a press briefing earlier this week. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

The result of a potential pandemic could lead to mass quarantines, travel restrictions and other steps that could have a serious impact on restaurants. “Disruption to everyday life may be severe,” Messonnier said.

For restaurants, the prospect of a global pandemic puts increasing importance on developing a pandemic plan, said Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer at Zero Hour Health, a firm that serves as a health and crisis response team for U.S. restaurants and other corporate clients.

“Those restaurants that developed pandemic flu plans in 2009 need to take them out, dust them off and update them,” Stone said.

She said that the response to a coronavirus situation may be similar to a flu pandemic plan or a hurricane plan, where a restaurant chain might have to close a large number of locations in a region that is quarantined due to coronavirus.

“Where the concern comes in for the industry is whether or not there will be regional quarantines, and if there are regional quarantines, what does that mean?” Stone said. She added that there are good templates on the CDC's and WHO's websites for businesses seeking to develop their own pandemic plans.

Messonnier said that communities can help mitigate the transmission of the virus by taking the same steps they would to prevent the spread of influenza. That could mean school closures, using internet-based teleschooling and canceling mass gatherings.

It could also mean more employees working from home. And there’s evidence that employers are already thinking about that: There was a dramatic spike this week in the number of executives on corporate earnings calls who said their employees could “work from home,” according to a search on financial services site Sentieo.

It should also mean consistently cleaning surfaces that people touch with any frequency, Messonnier said.

“Some of these measures are better than none,” she said. “But the maximum benefit occurs when the elements are layered upon each other.”

Many of the recommendations from employers to prevent the spread of the virus are the type of steps restaurants should already be taking, anyway, such as ensuring workers wash their hands frequently, sanitizing high-touch areas and sending home workers that become ill during the day.

The CDC recommends that companies notify workers when they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 while ensuring they maintain the confidentiality of the initial victim.

Recommendations also note that employees should stay home. The National Restaurant Association said it is “highly recommended” that employees showing flu-like symptoms be excluded from the restaurant until they are “symptom-free.”

The prospect of a global pandemic has already put a spotlight on restaurants and the tendency for employees to come in sick. Though more chains have started giving employees sick time as the supply of labor has tightened, it’s increasingly important for companies to change their culture to ensure employees aren't working while sick, Stone said.

While more restaurants are offering sick time to workers, it’s “not the biggest factor” in why workers come in sick. “There are plenty of hours to go around,” she said. “You can pick up hours later in the week.”

Instead, she said, “They work sick because they don’t want to let down the team. They want to do right by their manager.”

For restaurants, which have seen several cases lately of food safety incidents that have hammered sales, changing this culture is paramount, even without the threat of a pandemic. But, Stone said, it’s important for operators to set an example from the top down.

“The industry changes that by embedding it in your culture,” she said. “‘We don’t work sick. We are not going to work sick ourselves.’ Managers are going to have to model that behavior.”

That even extends to the tone managers use with employees. A harsh tone on its own can send the wrong message.

“It has to come from the top down,” Stone said: “‘No one works sick here.’”

Resources for restaurant operators

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

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

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

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