Six Frustrating Challenges to Reopening a Restaurant in the COVID-19 Era
[UPDATE MAY 22, 2020]: When we published this article a week ago, the 16th of May, we hoped that it would be found by a few other restauranteurs and let them know that they aren’t alone, and that the public who regularly follow us would gain some insight into our challenges. However, this article has since been shared all across Canada and even had respectable readership from the United States, viewed over 80,000 times by more than 61,000 people worldwide. It has been shared and reposted on social media hundreds, if not thousands of times, and we’ve spend much of the past week attempting to catalog and answer replies on this post and across various platforms, as well as fielding phone calls and conducting interviews with the press. This post was the top thread on the Calgary sub-Reddit for a while, and placed highly on the Alberta sub-Reddit, as well.
We could have never guessed that our transparency would resonate so strongly with so many people, and we have to thank all of you who’ve left comments, forwarded along to friends, purchased takeout or ordered us for delivery, etc. We especially appreciate the incredible level of positivity and constructive feedback people have given us about this article. Eventually we hope to make a follow-up article to talk about all of the wonderful ideas people have come up with about how to deal with these challenges, including what approaches we decide to take.
A small sample of the press highlights of the past few days:
- “Calgary microbrewery will open when it’s good and ready” – CBC News – May 22, 2020.
- “Restaurants Are Starting To Reopen. But How Will They Do It Safely?” – HuffPost – May 20, 2020
- “Some Calgary restaurants may not open for dine-in, despite provincial green light” – Global News – May 22, 2020
[END MAY 22 UPDATE]
We are now at a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, where measures taken to flatten the curve are starting to demonstrate that they’re working. Governments have begun to recognize the full economic and societal impacts of the restrictions they placed on their citizens and businesses, and are quickly starting to regroup as they face the daunting prospect of trying to rebuild an economy after 10-30% of small businesses have been forced to permanently close, and unemployment rates begin to approach and even surpass those of the Great Depression, which took a full decade and a world war to recover from.
While Prairie Dog has opted to remain closed for dine-in operations after May 14, 2020 (and very likely past the updated May 25th date announced on May 13), we do plan to eventually reopen. Ever since the May 1st announcement about restaurants reopening, people have been asking us over and over if we’ll be opening on the 14th. It can be difficult to adequately address the various challenges to doing so in a few comments on the phone or in person. When we do finally reopen, guests should expect a very different experience compared to what we were able to provide before. This article attempts to explain the complex and difficult situation we, as restaurant owners, are in when considering reopening to the public for dine-in.
It appears that our government wants to get out of the way of business as quickly as possible and leave most of the details in the hands of the business owner, which is great on one hand, but that means you could have a very different experience at different restaurants based on how seriously each restauranteur or restaurant ownership group takes the threat of COVID-19 to their staff and customers, and how they choose to approach the situation. Desperation leads to risk taking, and in this economic climate, many service-industry businesses are already in a desperate struggle to survive.
That said, what are some of the key points we are considering when thinking about reopening?
What to Do About Dishes?
Let’s first start with something that sounds so simple – dirty dishes.
Most people probably don’t think about the fact that at a typical full-service restaurant, the dirty dishes have to go back into a dish area to be cleaned, where a person typically sprays them off with a pre-rinse wand before running them through a dish washer for a final clean and sanitizing run. While spraying, the person cleaning the dishes may be aerosolizing everything present on those dishes, including customers’ saliva and viruses like COVID-19. This also generates a lot of spray-back, which lands all over over the person’s body in the process. That puts that person and everyone else that enters the dish area (such as the people bussing dishes, and line cooks dropping off dirty bowls and utensils) at an elevated risk of infection, both through inhalation and through surface contact.
To address infection risks for the person cleaning the dishes, they would have to wear a properly-fitted N95 mask to prevent inhalation of aerosolized droplets (and change it frequently), plus a full face shield to avoid droplets from going into their eyes (and this is still only partial protection), as well as a full-length rubber bib, and gauntlet gloves. And of course, this is all the while working with a hot sprayer next to a hot machine designed to bring dish temperatures above 180F (82C) to sanitize them, causing the person to become extremely hot, sweaty and uncomfortable, and increasing their odds of having to take off gloves to touch their face, neck, etc. to wipe off sweat, or to remove masks while taking a breather, etc., which could negate all of the benefits of the PPE.
After dishes are washed, there are many ways for them to become contaminated, either through the air or overspray in the dish area, or by the people washing and putting away the dishes, who may have been handling dirty dishes continually for several hours, and have viral particles all over their clothing, regardless of hand-washing. And contaminated items could include things like cutting boards, knives, tongs and the other utensils used by kitchen staff to prepare dozens of meals for different customers just before the food leaves the kitchen. Typically those utensils are considered sanitary after they come out of the hot dish machine, and are used without the application of additional chemical sanitizers.
Therefore, if we want to keep our staff and customers safe, restaurants require a radical rethink of how we manage our dirty customer dishes before we reopen. This is not a new problem, but it was one that was much easier to miss prior to COVID-19. The simplest solution is to eliminate dishes altogether – switching to cafeteria trays and takeout containers for table service, and having customers bus their own containers to the garbage/compost/recycling before they leave, the same way it works at a lot of quick service restaurants (fast food, mall food courts, etc.). Unfortunately for us at Prairie Dog, that flies in the face of our sustainability efforts by generating a ton of extra waste — an uncomfortable bargain that we’ve already had to make for our takeout offerings.
All that takeout packaging costs a lot of money, too. For a typical family order, it can cost us upwards of $10, not including the cost of condiments like salt and pepper packets, wet naps, hand sanitizers, etc.
The simple fact is that none of the standard restaurant dish management practices are designed to account for aerosolization of viral particles, and solutions to the problem could lead to substantial increases in restaurant spending, either on labour, chemicals, or PPE, at the same time as we are only able to stay open because of government wage subsidies, which could disappear out from under us at any moment.
The PPE Problem
The recently-released Alberta provincial guidelines for reopening restaurant dine-in service state that all staff who cannot maintain a 2-metre distance from customers must wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a “cloth or surgical mask”.
The Mayo clinic, based on CDC data, states that “A cloth mask is worn to help protect others in case the wearer has the virus. An N95 mask helps protect the wearer from getting the virus from others”. It appears that Health Canada agrees with the CDC, stating that cloth masks have “not been proven to protect the person wearing it and [are] not a substitute for physical distancing”. The World Health Organization also states:
- Non-medical or cloth masks could increase potential for COVID-19 to infect a person if the mask is contaminated by dirty hands and touched often, or kept on other parts of the face or head and then placed back over the mouth and nose
- It is possible that mask use, with unclear benefits, could create a false sense of security in the wearer, leading to diminished practice of recognized beneficial preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene
Further, while cloth masks are currently endorsed by many health agencies for reducing COVID-19 transmission, that endorsement is based on weak evidence and may be heavily-rooted in the fact that those agencies are trying to avoid a panic-driven rush by ordinary citizens to purchase medical masks, which would make them unavailable in situations where they are very important (more on that later). Obviously, a cloth mask will retain some of the expelled fluids when a symptomatic person coughs or sneezes, but servers are not even allowed to be working in that condition. Research published by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in April 2020 suggests that cloth masks may only trap larger droplets while allowing finer bioaerosols to pass through unchecked, and in asymptomatic carriers, it seems that the virus is primarily shed in the form of those bioaerosols.
Given that restaurant customers often outnumber the service staff by 20:1 to 50:1, our staff are on the losing end of the transmission equation, especially since customers can’t wear a mask while eating and drinking, and aren’t legally required to wear a mask at any other time, either.
Surgical masks are included in the provincial recommendations, but in many ways, they perform similarly to cloth, only protecting others and not the wearer, because they allow airborne particles to flow around the mask and be directly inhaled. Surgical masks are really designed to prevent the person wearing the mask from accidentally contaminating an open wound while performing a medical procedure, or from being sprayed in the mouth or nose while addressing arterial bleeding and the like. None of that protects the wearer from airborne respiratory droplets.
What servers actually need are N95 masks — the kind without any vent valve, which are the medical standard in situations where stopping airborne respiratory droplets and bioaerosols are a concern. And if servers properly use their N95 masks, they both protect themselves from customers, and protect customers from themselves. This is the reason health professionals use these masks.
It’s important to mention that governments have been trying hard to ration N95 masks out of fears of lack of supply for medical professionals, and in some areas (particularly in the US), this is still a really big deal. In Alberta, however, our distancing measures and early response to the pandemic led to far fewer cases than initially feared, to the point that Alberta started giving away hundreds of thousands of masks to other provinces by mid-April, and N95 masks are now available for purchase through websites like Canada’s Rapid Response Platform and ATB Nexus, albeit at inflated prices compared with before the pandemic, and still in limited quantities. The media is also rife with stories about subpar N95 masks that fail to meet the N95 spec, so finding a source for masks is no guarantee of solving this problem. It would be really helpful if the province already had a stockpile of quality masks that they could supply to restaurants to give us a head-start while we establish our own supply chains.
Medical professionals treat used PPE as a biohazard and remove it and dispose of it accordingly, called “doffing”, since it could be laden in infectious diseases (and that includes cloth and surgical masks). Thankfully, AHS has great guidelines for how to “doff” PPE, like this poster, but we had to read through a guide for home care professionals to find these guidelines, rather than in any of the information targeted at restaurants reopening in the COVID-19 world. Between the guidelines telling us that our staff should wear ineffective masks, and the lack of information in those same guidelines about how to properly use, remove, and dispose of them, it feels like the province is sending our staff into the front lines with only an illusion of protection.
Unfortunately, disposing of PPE will have a heavy environmental toll, as very little of the PPE materials are recyclable, and masks may have to be replaced multiple times per day, per staff member. If we have 20 shifts on a busier day, such as a Friday, we might have to use 30-40 masks on that day, alone. There are alternatives, like this reusable Alberta-made respirator, which has an interchangeable single-use filter that conforms to the N95 spec, but we don’t know if this is in full production yet, or how easy it will be to source a supply of hundreds of filters per week. Staff in some positions may also need to wear gloves, which also adds up quickly both in terms of cost and waste.
The Revenue Problem
Perhaps this is obvious, but the earning potential of a restaurant in this coronavirus-laden world deserves some discussion because it is a huge barrier to reopening. As we’ve mentioned in the past, restaurants are not high-margin businesses. There is an industry phrase called “The Magic Nickel“, which refers to the fact that even the best-run restaurants still only come out with 5 cents left in their metaphorical pocket from each 1 dollar in revenue earned, after paying all of their operating expenses and overhead.
Below we provide you with a rare glimpse into the costs and profitability of our restaurant — something that we would normally hold very close to our chest. But in these strange times, it feels right to be as transparent as we can about how difficult it is just to stay afloat as a restaurant, be it Prairie Dog or anywhere else, and how much cash flow this type of business moves through in a given month, while retaining so little for the future. So please, take advantage of this opportunity to try to understand our numbers through what might be dry content, if it wasn’t such a life or death situation for us we would typically hold these cards closer to our chest. Note that we’ve deliberately excluded a lot of the brewery-related expenses from the numbers below because the brewery has effectively been shut down for the past two months (though we are booting it back up now).
At Prairie Dog, our static overhead looks something like this:
- Rent, loans and equipment lease payments (incl. interest): $36k/month
- Utilities and waste removal: $5-10k/month (depending on season)
- Insurance and bank fees: $6k/month
- Cleaning, linen and maintenance services: $4k/month
- Legal fees, business licences, permits, inspections and cleaning supplies: $3-5k/month
- Software for point of sale, accounting, staff scheduling, inventory management, etc.: $2k/month
That’s about $62k/mo, meaning we need to earn about $2,070 per day in revenue just to cover our basic overhead.
Variable Costs and Labour Overhead
Of our variable costs, labour is the largest. However, staffing is again not very linear with business levels. Just opening our doors for dine-in requires a skeleton crew like this:
- A kitchen manager that also works as a prep/line cook (40 hrs/week)
- A front of house manager who also serves and bartends (40 hrs/week)
- Server/bartenders (90+ hrs/week for a single person on the floor at any given moment)
- Dish washers (60 hrs/week)
- 1-2 line cooks (140 hrs/week), bare minimum
- 12 hours per day of prep cook time (84 hrs/week), because we make most items from scratch
- A bookkeeper (20 hrs/week)
With Prairie Dog’s fair wages, our skeleton crew costs about $34k/month, in base wages alone! Vacation pay, benefits and payroll taxes add another 12-15% on top of that, for a total labour outlay of about $38k/mo. If you haven’t already done the math, our total monthly cash outlay with overhead and this skeleton crew is running about $100k, or $3,333/day.
In our current takeout-only model, our labour costs run only slightly lower than the dine-in skeleton, around $35k/mo, because our kitchen is very busy with takeout and we require many food expeditors for packaging, filling growlers and taking orders in person and over the phone. Splitting our sales across so many online services also requires additional bookkeeping work beyond 20 hours per week.
Some roles from our skeleton crew are transferrable between takeout and dine-in, but certainly the floor would require additional staff like servers and bartenders at busier times, and more kitchen staff would be needed to handle the volume during the lunch and dinner rushes, as well as for cleaning customer dishes, if we do that. So to provide a reasonably good level of customer service throughout the week, we need to add another $20-30k to our monthly labour, and that’s still without us employing extra staff to handle the additional sanitation and safety protocols that come with having guests dining in (such as dedicated hosts and bussing staff). So far, our monthly capital outlay is around $120-130k.
Now, we still haven’t spoken about food cost and supplies. We aim for an average food cost in the realm of 30% of the retail price on the menu. Supplies like vinyl gloves, masks, portioning bags, napkins, foil wrap, vacuum seal bags, replacement plates and cutlery, and hundreds of other small items add up to another 3% or so of overall sales (not including any new PPE and disinfectants required for in-house dining, which could add upwards of another $500/week in operating expenses).
The Mind-Boggling Numbers
If you do the math, to cover the 33% food cost+supplies plus $130k in combined labour costs and overhead (for concurrent dine-in and takeout/delivery), we need to earn $194k per month just to break even (calculated as target = 130000 / (1 – 0.33)). That’s an average daily sales revenue of $6,500, and with that we still haven’t retained our magic nickel! That magic nickel is required to cover future unexpected expenses and repairs, or if we ever wanted to replace furniture or invest in additional kitchen or brewery equipment, or to pay for renovations. Bringing in that extra 5% takes us to $204k in monthly revenue required to operate ($6,800/day), compared with the roughly $4k/day required to operate in a takeout/delivery-only model (approximately 30% less than if we tried to reopen).
In this climate of fear and economic meltdown, we do not believe it would be reasonable to expect Prairie Dog to earn anywhere near $204k in monthly revenue. Before COVID-19, with oil over $50/bbl, 210 seats and no distancing requirements, that was an attainable number for us, believe it or not.
What About Government Assistance Programs?
Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS)
The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy was introduced in April and allows us to retroactively recover a portion of our employee wages going back all the way to March 15th, just before we had to lay off 19 staff. The subsidy reimburses us for up to 75% of their wages, or as much as $847/week for that staff member (based on their average wage before the layoff).
Of all the government responses to the pandemic, the CEWS has by far had the biggest impact on our chance of surviving (as long as we don’t have to shut down again, but more on that later). We have to thank the federal government big time for getting this program in place. The CEWS will save us as much as $25,000 per month in labour (not every employee’s wage is eligible). This savings brings our monthly revenue target down from $204k to about $165k, or $5,500/day (more than a $25k drop because the reduction in required sales to cover the labour savings also reduces it’s corresponding cost of ingredients and supplies — yay!).
Besides saving us money, the CEWS has enabled us to bring many previously-laid-off staff back on board without as much fear and stress about trying to meet labour cost targets, and makes it easier to retain those staff for our eventual reopening.
Temporary 10 Percent Wage Subsidy
A 10% wage subsidy was introduced by the federal government sometime in late March or early April to help employers cut down their payroll tax burden, where the government offered to credit 10% of employee wages toward payroll taxes like EI and CPP. In our case, with a small workforce in a low income bracket, payroll taxes equate to a much smaller amount than 10% of wages, so we are accruing a credit toward future payroll tax expenditures. In the near term, we are not seeing much of a decrease in cash outflow from this program, but in the medium term, this accrued credit should helpful getting back on our feet again. In terms of impact on our monthly break-even sales, we still need to target over $162k ($5,415/day) with the benefits provided by this program.
Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA)
One of the drawbacks of the CEWS program is that we have to wait about 4-6 weeks after outlaying cash for payroll before we see the reimbursement come back to us from the CRA. This would have posed a really severe problem for us without the Canada Emergency Business Account, which provides us with a $40k revolving line of credit that we can use for anything, more or less, but provided us with the financial buffer required to have the cash in our bank account to cover payroll outflows while waiting for CEWS reimbursements.
The flexibility and repayment terms associated with the CEBA are first rate and far less punitive than our other loans. Again, another huge win for the federal government on this one. The only thing that could have made this program better is if we could have applied for a larger line of credit based on our specific needs, since as you saw earlier, $40k doesn’t even cover our basic overhead, and we were quite busy before March, so had a ton of outstanding payables coming up to their 30-day terms after we were forced to close our doors, many of which are still not paid today due to the fragility of the situation.
The CEBA does not impact our monthly revenue targets, as it just works as a buffer for our bank account, and ultimately has to be repaid.
Canadian Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) Program
The CECRA program is the federal government’s attempt to protect small businesses facing COVID-19-related revenue losses and unable to make rent payments. Eligible businesses can receive a rent reduction of at least 75% (of base rent) if their landlords take part in the program.
Unfortunately for us at Prairie Dog, we are not eligible for the CECRA program because we cannot attest that we’ve had a 70% reduction in revenue. Our new takeout/delivery business is doing well and we’re now running at around 50% of average pre-COVID-19 earnings.
What About the Owners?
You may have noticed that we didn’t talk about paying our owners, even though the owners are heavily involved in daily operations and spend about 300 hundred hours per week working at/for the pub.
Being less than 2 years into operations and having a very lean financial start, we hadn’t begun paying ourselves wages before COVID-19. What we were doing was covering our basic personal expenses, like rent, mortgage, childcare, car loans, and insurance, by repaying ourselves back some of the interest-free loans we made to start the company (aka: our life savings). But now that Prairie Dog is in such a fragile state, we fear that we would kill it if we take anything out of the company, so we are just going into more personal debt.
Lacking any form of taxable income for the past several years, we are completely ineligible for CERB and EI, as well as the other major benefits provided by our governments in response to COVID-19, like the CEWS, which cannot be used to help pay owner wages. We also have no access to government support in the event that we contract COVID-19 and need to convalesce at home, unlike our employees. This situation has unfortunately placed us into deep poverty and at great personal risk. We can at least find solace in the fact that we own and work in a great place that serves delicious food and beer, and at least we are still able to take care of our staff.
The Final Revenue Target
With the above programs in place and without any discretionary spending that wasn’t already discussed, we need to earn more than $160k/month, or an average of about $5,400 per day if we reopen for dine-in business. We believe that we can eventually achieve that kind of revenue, but it will take both time and a well-executed strategy to get there, and for a while we will have significant losses to overcome. For now, while we build that strategy and address the other challenges on this list, it makes far more sense to stick with the takeout and delivery model, where we are not quite breaking even, but are not losing anywhere close to what we might if we try to reopen for dine-in and don’t earn revenue approaching $160k/mo.
Unpleasant Customer Experience
Our customers are accustomed to a laid back, bohemian, highly-social atmosphere where they are encouraged to move around and engage with one another in a communal setting. Indeed, our catch phrase, “Beer, BBQ, Friends”, is rooted in the very idea that socialization is a key pillar of our offering. Our seating is largely composed of large, 10-12 seat tables. We have a 30-seat bar designed to get people chatting with one another and our bartenders.
We have a lot of fun and work hard at Prairie Dog, but it’s all about people and bringing community together. We wonder how our customers will feel if they are immediately stopped at our door like they are at the airport security line, then asked to wait for a table with marks laid out on the floor to control traffic direction and enforce the minimum safe distance between waiting parties.
The Alberta guidelines also state that seated parties must be limited to groups no larger than 6, which might not be a big deal at other restaurants, but at Prairie Dog large groups have become our bread and butter clientele, composing roughly half of our patronage before we closed in March. We do not want to have a group of 7 come into the restaurant and have to split them up. The province would probably argue that large groups are not supposed to be going out together to begin with, but the reality for us is that they certainly will come, probably in droves, so we need a strategy to handle that situation in a manner that provides a positive customer experience without landing us in hot water.
If there’s one thing that’s clear about human psychology, it’s that nobody wants to be called out or policed for their behaviour, especially by a random server at a restaurant. It is unclear whether we should expect our staff to be policing customers that violate distancing rules. Regardless, our patrons will expect us to intervene, because the violation is happening in our establishment and risking the health of the other people around the offender. That puts our staff at increased risk of verbal abuse and violence, which has been happening elsewhere. It also puts our other customers at greater risk of becoming involved in an uncomfortable incident. These are not experiences that any restauranteur wants their staff or guests to be involved in.
With the charm of Prairie Dog suppressed by the new controls, signage, servers in masks, etc., combined with the fact that many citizens will continue to play it safe and stay home, can we expect customers to want to continue to come dine in our restaurant — enough for us to earn what we need to stay open? Before we can reopen, we need to grapple more with this issue and fully understand how the altered experience will impact our customers, and which aspects of the provincial guidelines are compulsory vs. discretionary.
Impact on Our Psyche
The chart above makes it obvious that we Calgarians are by no means out of the woods yet. Therefore, some of our former staff have told us they don’t want to come back to work in a restaurant, especially if we were to reopen for dine-in business. The CERB benefit provided by our federal government is definitely helping to keep those staff comfortable at home and limiting their exposure to COVID-19, as it was intended, but that makes it harder to reopen when restaurant industry workers could be earning more with the CERB than they would if they were working.
Restaurants that have reopened elsewhere have also seen staff walk off the job out of fear of infection or the threat of personal harm and abuse from customers who do not take the restrictions seriously. The news is chock-full of stories about security guards (and another), customers and staff at all varieties of establishments being assaulted after confronting customers about failures to abide by distancing rules and mask usage recommendations. This has to have a negative impact on the psyche of our staff, leading to more fear and anxiety than they already felt about COVID-19, itself.
Another scenario has started playing out in areas that have removed restrictions before us: a restaurant reopens, then has to shut down again shortly afterwards. The second shutdown may be caused by:
- New staff COVID-19 infections.
- The inability of restaurant staff and owners to maintain a safe environment by enforcing COVID-19-related restrictions on guests.
- Jurisdictions backtracking and ordering restaurants to close again because they’ve seen a large rise in COVID-19 cases after easing restrictions, such as in many parts of Asia.
If we were forced to close again after bringing a lot of our former staff back in, and hiring/training new staff to handle the combined takeout and dine-in workload, stocking up our kitchen ingredients and supplies, and brewing all the beer inventory required, it would break both our spirit and our bank account. We would not be able to come back from that.
The Guillotine Effect of Honest COVID-19 Reporting by Restaurant Staff
When restaurant staff honestly report a symptomatic infection and test positive for COVID-19, restaurants are typically forced to shut down until all staff can be tested and ruled out as carriers. As already mentioned, a shutdown is a death sentence to a lot of restaurants right now. We think there are a lot of restaurant staff and owners out there who are practically trembling with fear that someone at their business will test positive for COVID-19 and they will be forced to shut down for good.
A positive COVID-19 test result for restaurant staff should result in the province putting that business on life support to ensure it remains viable until staff are able to return to work and the business can reopen, including putting temporary legal protections in place in the very likely case it cannot pay outstanding payables, rent, loans, etc. It is possible that our province, which is known for its friendly attitude toward business, already has programs like this and we are just ignorant of them (if so, please do let us know in the comments), but if that is the case, nobody seems to know about them and the disincentives against restaurant staff reporting COVID-19 symptoms remain. Honest reporting needs to be rewarded rather than resulting in possible permanent closure of a person’s employer and a permanent loss of those jobs.
Once support for businesses with identified COVID-19 cases is in place, why not also have Alberta Health Services issue mandatory, periodic testing for all food industry workers, with equal priority as with health care workers? Both are considered essential services, and both operate in a realm where contamination between the worker and patients/customers is far more likely than in most other industries, since:
- Restaurant customers put things in their mouths that restaurant staff have touched beforehand.
- Restaurant staff have to touch items that customers have put in their mouths beforehand.
- Restaurant staff interact with dozens, if not hundreds of members of the general public each day in a dine-in scenario.
Lack of Validation
We have all been asked to make substantial changes to our operations and individual behaviour over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve often been provided with conflicting information by health authorities, told at one time that mask use only increases the chance of the wearer becoming infected, then told later that masks are essential, for example.
Over the past few months, food industry businesses have had to do our own independent research to try to assemble information from various internet sources, identifying cleaning agents and sanitation practices that adequately deal with COVID-19, and to restructure processes to minimize cross-contamination between staff and customers. Putting these new practices into place has taken a major toll on workforce efficiency, and created added costs for chemicals, PPE, etc. that was not needed before, and in many cases exposed our staff to increase health risks from chemical exposure.
Up until May 11th, we had not received any substantive guidance from Alberta Health Services (AHS) about COVID-19 mitigation in restaurants, and the May 11 guidance is still quite basic. What we at Prairie Dog hoped to receive was a guide that provides evidence-based best practices and details about chemical choice, preparation, and application for different restaurant scenarios (i.e. bathroom toilet vs. a food preparation surface in the kitchen), at a bare minimum. Those same guidelines would also include information about common trouble spots for viral cross-contamination in restaurants, changes to dish handling procedures to avoid aerosolizing viral particles, recommendations for staff duty segregation to avoid cross contamination between customers, best practices for cash handling, how to handle customers that refuse to comply with distancing requirements, where to source reliable PPE from and how to validate it, etc.
People around the globe are conducting illuminating tests to try to understand and educate the public about cross-contamination and viral transmission in food-service settings, but why isn’t this happening right here in Alberta, with real science behind it? In some areas, scientists are testing sewage at water treatment plants to try to estimate the scope of COVID-19 infection among local populations, and detect early warning signs of increased infection rates as restrictions are eased. We imagine a lot could also be learned by testing a random sampling of used beverage glasses at restaurants and bars (after they are allowed to open), or of soiled-dish spray deposits in restaurant dish areas. It would also be reassuring to see studies that try to glean the transmissibility of COVID-19 through server hand contact, because it is not feasible for a server to wash or sanitize their hands between every single movement of menus, food, beverage, cutlery, and condiments to/from a party’s table.
Chemical companies like Ecolab have released their own guidelines, but they are not endorsed by Alberta Health Services and may conflict with local mandates and AHS policy, so although the manual is a great resource and a head start for us, we shouldn’t have to rely on the advice of a chemical company with no guidance from AHS. This still puts us at risk of non-compliance because we don’t have an outline of what compliance looks like. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that chemical companies will always aim to sell chemicals. Maybe there are other options that are equally effective, or even more effective than chemicals?
What’s missing in all of this is any form of validation that what we’re doing is actually working. If we have to double our labour and chemical costs in an effort to try to mitigate viral cross-contamination, we want to know with relative certainty that those changes are truly effective at stopping the transmission of COVID-19 at our establishment.
We know from our brewery experience that the devil is often in the details when it comes to sanitation and preventing microbiological cross-contamination, and a subtle change may be all that is required to go from a pass to a fail, or vice versa. Standardized scientific testing could give us an open-eyed view of how we’re doing and allow us to improve, but as far as we know, there’s nothing being done in Alberta to scientifically validate or refute common restaurant practices in the face of COVID-19, and certainly nothing being done to try to help us keep costs manageable while also safely defeating the virus in our facilities. The general advice is to go for the nuclear option in terms of chemical concentrations, but that’s expensive and damaging to our furniture, facilities and our bodies, so we’d really like to know what is actually required, because surely a 1:9 bleach/water solution is overkill in all but the most extreme of circumstances.
As you have seen, a decision as simple as what to do with dirty dishes is mired in challenges and additional costs in the COVID-19 era. PPE is required for a lot of our staff, but which PPE is debatable, and access is limited and undependable. Restaurant earnings have to be high enough to avoid hemorrhaging money and rapidly bankrupting the business with labour costs and other overhead, and that’s really unlikely to happen in a climate of fear and uncertainty, especially with reduced occupancy and physical distancing. Finally, until COVID-19 progresses to a state where our staff can feel safe coming to work and we don’t have to police customer behaviour, and where we have validation to assure that what we are doing is truly adequate to prevent infection, it feels disconcerting to consider opening for dine-in again. Nothing about this situation is ideal, and all of us will have to live in an uncomfortable middle ground for a while, but as you can see, just figuring out what the middle ground looks like is no simple task.
We should be clear that this article is not meant to be a critique of what other businesses are doing. Every business has its own unique circumstances and constraints to work under, and may take novel and unique approaches to the problems listed above that we haven’t thought of. At the moment, some businesses have only two options — reopen now or perish completely. We are in the fortunate position where we have the option to continue focusing on takeout and delivery, and we think that reopening before we’ve sufficiently grappled with these issues would pose an unnecessary risk to our business, staff and customers, so we are waiting until we feel the time is right.