In opening a food service business during the pandemic, the first priority has to be the safety of staff and customers. Every business owner has a duty to assess the risks in their business and implement measures to reduce them as far as reasonably practicable. Those who have opened already need to continuously assess the measures they’ve taken and improve them, where necessary. Advice about coronavirus has been frequently updated on what’s required to ensure safety from infection. The UK government’s advice for restaurants has been updated over 20 times since May 2020!
Running a safe food service business is a complex undertaking at the best of times, but is even more complex in the midst of a pandemic. Here are five broad areas where safety measures can be implemented.
1. Social distancing
Social distancing is one of the main measures to prevent the spread of infection from the larger respiratory droplets that fall out of the air within a short distance from an infected person. Most of these droplets fall within 1–2m, so guidelines are to keep people this distance apart, wherever possible, or introduce physical barriers such as screens to block the droplets from reaching others.
Every restaurant is different and needs a bespoke risk assessment and implementation plan to keep customers and staff as safe as possible. A range of measures are needed, including the following.
- Provide clear information about social distancing online, by email or onsite by placing signage where people can see it as soon as they arrive and at appropriate places around your premises.
- Control the numbers of people on the premises with advanced booking and queuing at the entry. The numbers using washrooms at any one time should also be controlled to ensure social distancing.
- Rearrange indoor and outdoor seating and standing areas to keep customers 1–2m apart or install screens, where necessary.
- Identify pinch points where staff and customers move around your premises and arrange a one-way system, if possible.
- Minimise the contact between staff and customers, where possible, such as at tills or front-of-house, by using screens and distancing.
- Avoid customers having to leave their tables, such as to pick up cutlery, condiments or food, to maintain distancing. Inform customers that their children are also required to follow social distancing guidelines.
- Maintain social distancing in food preparation areas as much as possible by managing staff access and planning workflow. This is likely to be more complex because of the room and equipment layout. Check on government food safety websites for more detailed guidance to help restaurant businesses.
2. Hygiene measures
Ensuring standard food hygiene practices are strictly enforced is a high priority. In some areas, they’ll need to be increased to reduce the risk of potentially infected staff contaminating surfaces, food serving equipment, crockery and cutlery and also cross-contamination between customers caused by staff.
In addition to surface and droplet transmission, COVID-19 is now recognised as an airborne infection. Ventilation with clean air is a high priority indoors and in enclosed outdoor areas to reduce the concentration of respiratory aerosol particles in the air and extract them from the room. This can mean opening doors and windows and checking ventilation systems are operating efficiently and not contaminating other spaces in the building.
Where ventilation is inadequate the indoor air should be filtered to remove harmful aerosol droplets and airborne particles. This can be done with portable air purifiers that filter the air with HEPA 13 filters. These can be placed at strategic locations to clean the air close to customers.
Surface-cleaning and disinfecting will need to be increased in food preparation, serving and customer areas. Surfaces that are regularly touched by staff and customers need frequent cleaning and will include counters, tills, door handles and push plates. Doors should be left open where it’s safe to do so (considering fire safety) to reduce touching and to aid ventilation. Tables, furniture and objects that customers use or touch should be cleaned between each set of customers.
Handwashing and sanitising
Provide hand sanitiser for customer use on entry to the restaurant and at key points, such as inside the entrance, next to the book for writing contact details and outside the washroom. Review the handwashing procedures for staff to take account of the new risks of COVID-19 infection.
Staff should wash their hands frequently, following the standard 20-second handwashing guidelines, in the following situations.
- Before starting work
- Before and after handling food
- Before handling clean cutlery, dishes, glasses, or other items to be used by the customer
- After handling dirty or used items, such as collecting used dishes from customer tables
- After touching high-contact surfaces, such as door handles
- When moving between different areas of the workplace
- After being in a public place
- After blowing their nose, coughing or sneezing; coughs and sneezes should be caught in a tissue or the crook of the elbow followed by handwashing or use of hand sanitiser
- After handling money
- After using the toilet
- After eating, drinking or smoking
Washrooms are an essential facility in a restaurant, but have a high risk of spreading infections. They’ll also require increased cleaning, disinfecting and ventilating. They usually have restricted space, so the number of people and social distancing will need to be managed. Set up clear signage with guidance for customers on how to maintain safety.
It’s also important to ensure that the washroom is well-stocked with soap and hand towels or hand driers, toilet seat cleaners and sealed toilet roll holders.
Risk hotspots in restaurants include:
- frequently touched objects, such as door handles, counters, furniture, where microorganisms can be picked up or transferred
- washrooms, where a high number of users in a relatively small space and toilet-flushing increase the risk of the spread of microorganisms on surfaces and in the air
- weak points around your building where pests can gain access or find harbourage
- food storage areas that attract pests and can provide harbourage
- food waste storage areas that attract pests and encourage insect breeding
- payment keypads
3. Go mobile
Many restaurants have already introduced mobile apps for customers to book in advance, to control numbers and to record their contact details in case of a need to trace sources of an infection outbreak. Apps can also hold a number of other advantages for a restaurant and for its customers.
- Removing printed menus: a menu that has to be handled by customers and staff is a potential source of infection and will need cleaning and disinfecting regularly. An online menu can also be updated more easily without having to get new copies printed.
- Order fulfilment: customers can place their order in advance or while sitting at their table and the information is sent straight to the kitchen staff. There’s no need for a member of staff to manage the phone or to take orders on paper at the tables, saving on staff workload. The customer order is accurately recorded and more clearly readable by kitchen staff.
- Online payment: payment is made immediately the order is confirmed by the customer. This releases staff time and removes the need to handle cash, cards or a payment terminal – all potential routes of infection. The customer no longer has to try and attract the attention of a member of staff at the end of their meal to pay and there’s no risk of customers walking out without paying.
4. Pest control
Pest control should be a standard component of a food safety regime. Pest infestations by rodents, stored product insects, cockroaches or flies can lead to contamination of food ingredients and prepared food, leading to a range of illnesses in staff and customers.
- Rodents don’t just eat food. They can damage equipment, the building itself and fittings by gnawing – nearly half (49%) of reported electrical equipment damage is caused by rodents. The damage can lead to expensive repair costs.
- When employees or customers see pests on your premises, especially rodents and cockroaches, it can cause negative feelings and reputational harm.
- If a pest infestation escalates, it’s likely to increase cleaning and disinfection costs and loss of the contaminated and damaged stock.
- Pest infestation can lead to control measures imposed by local authorities, loss of business and even fines.
5. Ensure you’re prepared in case of future lockdowns
A sudden lockdown can leave premises with few or no people on site, but with multiple attractants to pests from stored food and food waste. Rodents became bolder during lockdowns around the world after their normal food supplies dried up and they desperately looked for new food sources. Smaller pests such as stored product insects and flies can breed unnoticed when there are no staff around.
Maintain a comprehensive food hygiene regime so that food and food waste are not left lying around for pests to easily access them, which should include making sure waste storage is pest-proofed.
Proactively prevent pest infestations with an integrated pest management programme that includes building proofing – building maintenance aimed at removing weak spots.