By Andrew J. Sherman, Chantelle C. Egan, Anne R. Dana, and Patrick D. Joyce

Seyfarth Synopsis: As restaurant and hospitality consumers rethink their dining experiences, increased concerns are coming from food service providers about how to ensure food safety, reassure patrons, and address issues arising when workers get sick. The good news is that the food industry is already well-positioned because of its strict food safety standards.

Business owners and chefs need to consider how their business plans and business models need to shift, with a focus on delivery, catering, special events, and in-store promotions to keep facilities packed and tables turning. Restaurants and food service providers should also consider the below steps to help them prepare for Coronavirus-related issues.

Planning Ahead

One of the most important things for any employer is putting a plan in place for how to address these new concerns.

  • Open communication with employees and patrons
    • Provide detailed information to employees about Coronavirus, including the symptoms, where they can go if they believe they are sick, what steps the restaurant is taking to ensure the safety of workers’ and patrons—as well as provide regular updates as the situation evolves. Information is one of the best ways to calm frayed nerves.
    • Post signage upon entering restaurants and open letters on websites, and send emails to patrons of enhanced cleaning and personal hygiene procedures and measures. If your restaurant offers paid sick leave and/or health insurance, use this as an opportunity to toot your own horn, while also assuring patrons that you have stressed the importance to employees to stay home if feeling sick.
  • Develop a response plan
    • Reduced staff availability. An increased number of your staff may be staying home, whether because they or a loved one is ill, or due to preventative measures such as school closures.  Cross-training for various positions could ease the burden of reduced staff availability.
    • Reduction in demand. With individuals adopting new behaviors to curb the spread of Coronavirus (e.g., working remotely, not gathering in large groups), restaurants may experience a downturn in consumer demand.  Create strategies for alternative revenue sources. For example, offer delivery or catering.  Review contracts to determine how to handle cancellations for large parties or changing set delivery orders.
    • Supply chain. Access to ingredients, supplies, and other vital materials may be restricted as supply chains adjust to virus concerns. Research alternative sources of necessary supplies.
    • The need to close or reduce hours of operations may come on suddenly. Take measures to ensure that you can swiftly communicate with your employees and patrons. Also establish a plan for how to quickly undertake sanitation efforts.
    • Publicity. Get ahead of possible press coverage if there is a Coronavirus exposure by preparing a draft public response for the media, so you aren’t left scrambling.

Increase Sanitation Efforts

Using federal, state and local food safety laws and guidance as a starting point, now is the time to take your already rigorous cleaning routine to the next level.

  • Wash, rinse, repeat
    • Enhance frequency of cleaning, focusing on disinfecting high-touch public areas, such as door handles, tabletops, chairs, and counters, as well as credit card machines or other highly trafficked surfaces. Ensure that cleaning supplies comply with the EPA’s list of approved disinfectants for SARS-CoV-2 (which can be found here).
    • Consider additional sanitizing measures such as “deep cleans” at regular intervals and with increased frequency.
    • Increase handwashing requirements for employees, including instituting a schedule (such as every 30 or 60 minutes), as well as whenever employees touch their face, sneeze, cough, or use the restroom. Remind employees to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds using plenty of soap.
    • Provide hand sanitizer or personal disinfecting wipes for patrons as they enter the facility, demonstrating publicly your commitment to sanitation.
  • Limit hotspots for potential contamination
    • Remove self-serve condiment and utensil stations. Instead, have patrons ask for these items from gloved employees.
    • Suspend reusable cup options—whether for free refills or for patrons who bring their own.
    • Consider shifting to take-out options and evaluate best practices for providing patrons with food to go.

Sick Leave and Reporting Illness

Employers also need to quickly address what to do when employees are sick.

  • Review policies for how to handle employees who call out
    • Employers should review their sick leave policies, Family Medical Leave Act policies, and other relevant policies to determine what kind of leave must be provided to employees and under what situations.
    • Where feasible, some larger restaurants and chains have temporarily amended sick leave policies, including adding paid sick leave or “catastrophe pay” for up to 14 days for employees who have to be quarantined.
  • Pay attention to proposed new laws
  • Paid time off
    • Review any pay issues that may arise if employees are unable to come to work. Unless there is a contract or a collective bargaining agreement at issue, hourly employees typically work at-will and are not guaranteed wages or hours.  In other words, these employees do not need to be paid.  However, employers should ensure there are no local or state laws that require further consideration if schedules are suddenly changed.
    • For example, New York’s Fair Workweek law, which governs fast food restaurants, contains exceptions to the schedule change premium, and one such exception is a state of emergency declared by the governor of the State of New York or mayor of the city, which is currently the case in New York. Likewise, San Francisco’s Formula Retail Employee Rights Ordinances, which govern chain restaurants with at least 40 locations worldwide, provides a similar exception when “operations cannot begin or continue due to threats to employees or property, or when civil authorities recommend that work not begin or continue.”
  • Communicate expectations for employees to report potential exposure and/or diagnosis
    • Employers should remind employees about sick leave policies and strongly encourage employees who are not feeling well to stay home.
    • Employers should also implement requirements for reporting any possible exposure to or diagnosis of Coronavirus infection. This includes notifying other employees and/or patrons who may have been exposed.
  • Clarify expectations to managers for addressing employee and/or patrons displaying symptoms
    • Communicate with managers about how to address concerns with employees who appear sick and instructions on sending employees home. Put a policy in place with respect to what is required to return to work, such as a doctor’s note or a documented negative  Coronavirus test result.
    • Communicate with managers about what to do if a patron appears sick and is displaying symptoms associate with Coronavirus, which may include providing hand sanitizer and tissues, asking the patron to leave in extreme circumstances, and being sure to properly disinfect the area where the patron was after they leave.

The situation with Coronavirus, and how best to respond, is evolving rapidly.  Planning ahead, while remaining flexible, is key to navigating the changing norms and the impact of Coronavirus on your business.

For more information on this or any related topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) or Workplace Counseling & Solutions Teams.