Restaurants Amp Up Cleaning Efforts

Chains learn from the experience of a Seattle Starbucks, which had an employee infected with COVID-19.

March 10, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Last week, a barista in a Seattle Starbucks was diagnosed with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a situation that many fast-food operators have been preparing for since the communicable illness arrived in the U.S. two months ago, Bloomberg reports.

Like other national chains, Starbucks met regularly with employees to explain the risks of the virus and how to minimize them, and the company said workers started sanitizing much more regularly in anticipation. Still, they learned just how difficult it is to keep the virus at bay.

Americans everywhere are taking precautions, such as staying home with the sniffles, replacing on-site meetings with conference calls and pushing open doors with their shoulders rather than their hands. But foodservice businesses are seeing their operations threatened by the virus’s proliferation. For the foodservice industry, the problem is even more complicated as employees can’t work from home, money changes hands routinely and food and beverages are handled.

Although the coronavirus hasn’t been a concern in the U.S. long enough to impact sales, about one-third of Americans say it’ll make them stick closer to home, staying away from restaurants and ordering take-out less often, according to a recent survey by Technomic.

“Consumers could potentially cocoon themselves in their homes and look for eating solutions that will not expose them to unnecessary social interactions,” the report said.

Restaurants, like many public places, provide opportunities for the virus to spread, said David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. People who touch a contaminated object—including tables, silverware and credit cards—and then touch their mouth, nose or possibly eyes, may come down with the illness, Michaels said, though that’s not thought to be the primary method of transmission. “People have to be encouraged if they have symptoms to stay home,” Michaels said.

That’s more difficult if the workers lack paid sick leave, according to Bill Marler, an attorney at Seattle-based Marler Clark LLP, who specializes in food safety. “There are a lot of things that the foodservice industry has not done a very good job at combating,” Marler said, including “the problem of not having sick-leave policy for employees.”

Starbucks did learn from its experience in Asia, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, and the company instructed baristas at its 14,000 U.S. locations to wipe down busy store areas every eight minutes.

The infected Starbucks employee in Seattle, who was not identified, was self-isolating at home and “feeling well,” said Rossann Williams, the company’s head of U.S. retail. The store in downtown Seattle was closed temporarily, and workers gave it a deep cleaning, she said, adding that authorities encouraged Starbucks to reopen the outlet.

Other food providers are trying to keep the virus away. A Dunkin’ outlet in Chicago put a hand sanitizer near the cash register for customers to use and switched to disposable paper towels instead of the usual blue rags to clean dirty tables. Employees at a Papa John’s franchise in Nederland, Texas, quit shaking hands. Instead, they do what they call the “coronavirus fist-bump.” And at Noodles & Co. in Chicago, manager Joe Argos said he replaced all the metal flatware with plastic. “It’s not just to protect our guests, but to protect our team members,” he said.

For more information on the coronavirus and how retailers and foodservice operators can prepare for its effects, visit the NACS Coronavirus Resources page.