Operators need to remember to follow other food safety protocols to maximize safety.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, restaurant teams had to follow food safety protocols, including regular cleaning, sanitizing, and handwashing. Now, COVID-19 has forced us to elevate our safety protocols and make significant changes to help protect our employees and guests from contracting this new, highly contagious virus. But as we all focus on mitigating COVID-19—and implementing new rules to prevent this illness—we must also remember to follow other food safety protocols to maximize safety.

Our “new normal” now includes combatting coronavirus, as well as norovirus, foodborne illnesses, and other food safety breaches. It may feel overwhelming, but restaurant teams can reduce risks by doing the following:

Elevate cleaning and disinfecting efforts. It’s essential to clean, sanitize and disinfect your entire facility—especially high-touch areas—throughout the day, using chemicals that meet EPA standards for killing COVID-19. Proper disinfection is also essential to combatting norovirus, which is also highly contagious. Develop regular cleaning schedules for all surfaces (e.g., counters, tables, prep spaces), high-touch areas (e.g., doorknobs, sink faucets, credit card scanners), down to the smallest details (e.g., the latches on restroom stalls). And implement a system that ensures compliance.

Wash your hands. Handwashing is the No. 1 way to prevent the spread of disease, including COVID-19 and norovirus. Ensure that all employees wash their hands with soap and warm water for a minimum of 30 seconds. Wash hands frequently, including after using the restroom, using cleaning products, coughing/sneezing, or touching money, cell phones, doorknobs, or any other potentially contaminated surface. Additionally, wash your hands thoroughly after touching raw proteins (e.g., poultry, meats, seafood, eggs) to prevent foodborne illnesses and possible cross-contamination. All employees must follow this important safety practice.

Implement COVID-19 safety protocols. Enforce social distancing and require appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) based on the guidelines for your jurisdiction. This may include line cooks standing six feet away from each other, less-than-normal seating capacity, dining tables moved to proper social distances, outdoor dining only, implementing one-way traffic patterns, use of disposable menus and placemats, and/or requiring employees to wear masks. In some cases, restaurants are currently opting to offer take-out or delivery meals only. All of these safety tips apply whether you’re accommodating in-house dining or take-out only.

Don’t let employees work when sick. No exceptions—even if it means you’ll be short-staffed for a shift. Take employees’ temperatures with a scanning (no contact) thermometer before their shift. If they have a temperature of 100.4 or higher, or any symptoms of COVID-19, norovirus, or other contagious illnesses, including fever, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, etc. send them home. Also, be aware of the ever-changing information around COVID-19 symptoms. Some symptoms may seem unusual, such as the loss of smell and taste.

Train employees regularly. Explain what the new protocols entail and why these rules are so important. Ensure compliance. Take immediate corrective actions when employees aren’t following protocol. Offer ongoing trainings around all protocols, from food safety basics to the new COVID-19 rules.

Get information from reputable websites. COVID-19 is such a new phenomenon and information has been evolving since the pandemic began in the US earlier this year. Since COVID-19 information is being constantly updated, be certain to follow reputable resources, such as the CDC, FDA, WHO, and NIH, for updates. Provide real-time information to your teams.

Go digital. Digital auditing, inspection, and quality management tools are essential to maximize the health and safety of your company, employees, and guests. Digital tools help ensure that critical safety protocols are being followed correctly and provide numerous advantages over antiquated pen and paper systems. As restaurants shift the way they operate—adding COVID-19 protocols to their existing food safety operations—digital tools will provide significant benefits, including accuracy and transparency.

Add COVID-19 processes to your existing food safety protocols. Everyone is, understandably, focusing on the COVID-19 crisis right now, but don’t lose sight of other important food safety protocols. Train employees around COVID policies and ensure compliance, while also reinforcing the importance of basic food safety rules, such as cooking foods to proper temperatures, avoiding time/temperature abuse, avoiding cross-contamination, accommodating food allergies, only buying supplies from reputable vendors, etc. It’s important to mitigate COVID risks, but it’s essential to prevent other food safety breaches, as well.

Recognize that things will be “weird” for a while. Going out to eat is an important part of our society and it’s critical for socialization. Many people have been quarantining for months. Some are extremely excited to start dining out again, while others are being far more cautious because they fear COVID-19 exposure. The dining experience has dramatically changed due to coronavirus, as we all try to get used to servers in masks, disposable menus, social distancing, limited capacity, and other necessary changes. We will adjust to this new normal, as we stay mindful of the changes we need to implement for everyone’s health and safety.

Francine L. Shaw is president of Savvy Food Safety, Inc. a company that offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, developing norovirus policies, and more. Francine is also helping companies develop COVID-19 policies, response plans, training programs, and employee pre-shift checklists. The Savvy Food Safety team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores and has helped numerous clients prevent foodborne illnesses and elevate safety and cleanliness protocols due to COVID-19. Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, Food Management Magazine and Food Service Consultants Society International. 

Expert Takes, Feature