What should restaurants do during the coronavirus pandemic?

Here are tips for staying healthy—and staying in business—during this unprecedented crisis.
Photograph: Shutterstock

It’s an overwhelming time for restaurant operators, as coronavirus cases spread around the country. Operators are grappling with concerns over the safety of their employees and customers, while those in hard-hit areas such as Seattle are closing stores after reporting major drops in sales.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 1,323 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University, and 127,863 reported worldwide.

Virtually every large event in the country has been canceled or postponed, including the seasons of all major active sporting leagues, Broadway shows and major conventions, as the respiratory illness continues to spread within the population.

For restaurants, a pandemic puts increasing importance on developing a plan, said Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer of 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.

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 coronavirus situation is rapidly changing and varies greatly depending on location.

Many operators are communicating calming messages to their customers, ensuring they understand that the restaurant is undertaking proper cleaning and hygiene procedures.

Bo Peabody, a restaurateur and co-founder of reservations app Seated, recommends that operators be careful with the tone of their messaging to both customers and staff, treating the situation with seriousness and calm.

“That’s good from an emotional and communications perspective,” Peabody said. “At the end of the day, no matter what type of restaurant you run, in a time of crisis, it becomes a neighborhood restaurant. It becomes a community place. Restaurants are such vital threads in our social fabric. They’re one of the last places we gather.”

Now is the time to be communicating off-premise options, experimenting with different third-party delivery providers and encouraging customers to find any way to receive your product, he said.

“We’re constantly trying to help operators to get people to order delivery less and come into the restaurant more, but in this time of crisis, any business is good business,” he said.

Now might also be a good time to talk with your landlord about payment deferrals and other options, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 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 instances lately in which food safety incidents 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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