Welcome to the third guide in our three-part series on reopening your food business safely following COVID-19 shutdowns.
In this guide, we’ll outline the practical steps you need to take to operate safely post shutdown including implementing physical distancing measures, cleaning and sanitising, organising personal protective equipment (PPE) and more.
In the other parts of this series, we take a closer look at how to prepare to reopen your business after the shutdown as well as how to train your team and communicate with customers effectively.
Ensure Physical Distancing
In most Australian states and territories, physical distancing is here to stay — at least for the near future. Human-to-human contact is the primary source of transmission for the coronavirus and preventing this type of transmission is vital for keeping the economy open and businesses operating. Many local authorities are putting rules in place about the physical distancing protocols that must be followed.
All food businesses need to consider the following:
- How to enforce physical distancing in food preparation or production areas. Often in these areas it’s difficult to keep employees 2 metres / 6 feet apart. Consider how to rearrange your premises to allow for this and if it’s not possible, ensure that there are sufficient measures in place — such as the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) — to protect employees.
- How to minimise employee / customer interactions. Take the time to look at each of the employee/ customer interactions in your current business and determine what could be done differently. For example, a number of food service businesses are using technology to allow customers to order and pay on their phones to reduce the number of times employees and customers come into contact with each other.
- Floor markings. A simple way to remind employees and customers about the physical distancing requirements is to use brightly coloured tape on the floor of the premises to show where to stand, wait or work.
- Shared pathways. Many food service and food retail business have high traffic pathways used by many customers such as entrances, exits and restroom access. Consider whether these pathways can be changed to reduce customer contact. For example, consider having customers enter and exit the premises through different doors. Use directional signage and markings to ensure customers follow the correct pathways.
- Team meetings. Team meetings often lead to team members congregating in a small location for an extended period of time. Determine whether in-person meetings could be replaced with email updates or video meetings to reduce the threat of coronavirus transmission between coworkers.
- Split team approach. Breaking the workforce down into small groups that work together on the same shift but don’t interact with other groups on a different shift is called the ‘split team approach’. The advantage of such an approach is that if one team member develops COVID-19 symptoms and needs to self-quarantine along with their other team members, there is another non-impacted team available to pick up the slack.
Food service businesses (e.g. restaurants, bars and cafes) need to consider:
- Spacing between tables. With a requirement to ensure each customer has four square metres of space, food service businesses need to look at how to rearrange their food premises to ensure this. This may require removing a number of tables and other furniture from the premises until the restrictions around physical distancing are loosened. If removing furniture from the premises isn’t possible, use tape or clear signage to show which furniture isn’t available for use.
- Discouraging high congregation areas. Determine how to prevent customers congregating in one spot such as at the entrance when waiting to be seated or around the bar. Also determine how to prevent employees congregating in break areas or other parts of the premises.
- Temporary table dividers. Consider whether there is a way to install temporary table dividers made of Plexiglass or another material that’s easy to clean. Dividers provide more privacy to customers and help to alleviate concerns about being in close proximity to other people.
Food retail businesses must also consider:
- Using every other checkout. To protect employees and customers, food retail businesses should consider whether it’s feasible to use every other checkout and leave the checkouts in between closed. This minimises the number of people in the proximity of both employees and customers and helps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
- Physical barriers. Maintaining a distance of 2 metres / 6 feet isn’t always possible in a food retail environment. Many have adopted the use of physical barriers made from Plexiglass or a similar transparent material to protect their employees from the many customers they come into contact with every day.
Enhance Cleaning and Sanitising Protocols
Before reopening the food business, the entire premises must be cleaned, sanitised and disinfected. Take this opportunity to prepare the entire business for reopening by cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting hard-to-reach areas and items that may not normally be considered such as window frames and door handles. Be sure to check with your supplier that the sanitiser and disinfectant you use is effective against COVID-19.
Also use this time to put a deep cleaning plan in place to be activated if an employee that has been working on the premises is later diagnosed with COVID-19.
After reopening, a revised Cleaning & Sanitising Schedule will be needed. Food businesses simply cannot go back to the old way of working where high touch items that did not come into contact with food were not sanitised. Not only does this pose a real danger since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can live on surfaces for many days, customers will also be hesitant to touch items that they know may have been handled by other people.
Take the time to review your Cleaning & Sanitising Schedule and adjust as necessary. Items that need to be cleaned and sanitised after every use include:
- Credit card machines
- Table tops and counters
- Menus (if not using disposable menus)
- Sauce containers (if not using single-serve sachets)
- Salt and pepper shakers (if not using single-serve sachets)
- Food trays
Other items that may need to be cleaned and sanitised multiple times per shift are:
- Chairs and stools
- Light switches
- Door handles
- Soap dispensers
- Elevators and access buttons
Consider other high touch items in your food business and how often they need to be cleaned and sanitised.
Restrooms may also require more attention than normal. It’s recommended to appoint an employee as a restroom monitor to open the door to customers, limit the number of customers in the restrooms at any one time, and to clean and sanitise the facilities every 30 minutes. Use floor markings to ensure physical distancing between customers waiting to use the restrooms and install a hand sanitiser station outside of the restroom for customers to use prior to touching anything in the restroom.
Remember: Cleaning removes physical dirt or soiling. Sanitising removes harmful pathogens from food contact surfaces. Disinfecting removes harmful pathogens from surfaces that have not been in contact with food.
Organise Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential to ensure the safety of employees, at least until the coronavirus is well under control.
The four main types of PPE to consider are face masks, disposable gloves, face shields and disposable aprons.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted person-to-person via droplets released when an infected person speaks, breathes, coughs or sneezes. Infected people may be pre-symptomatic (not yet displaying symptoms) or asymptomatic (not experiencing any symptoms) and still transmit the virus.
Face masks are an effective form of protection against these droplets. They protect the wearer from inhaling droplets and also prevent the wearer from transmitting the virus.
Masks are an essential item of PPE for food workers that:
- come into contact with customers
- work closely with others
- handle fully cooked or ready-to-eat foods
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released guidelines that all food workers should wear a face mask or some sort of face covering when working. Australian state governments may start to provide similar guidelines in the near future.
The most effective face mask in protecting the wearer against the coronavirus is an N95 mask. Due to shortages of these masks, governments are requesting that they are only used by health and community workers with a high level of possible exposure to the coronavirus.
Disposable surgical-style masks are recommended for food workers, however some businesses may experience problems procuring these due to increased demand from the health and community sector. If disposable masks cannot be obtained, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed that food businesses may use cloth masks provided that they are laundered at 60°C/140°F or above and dried hygienically.
Disposable gloves can help to protect food workers’ hands from coming into direct contact with the coronavirus. Not only do they offer a barrier against the virus, food workers are likely to be more conscious about where they’re putting their hands and whether they are touching their face (especially their mouth or nose) if wearing gloves.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many jurisdictions required food workers to wear gloves when handling ready-to-eat foods so as not to transmit any bacteria or viruses onto the food. Disposable gloves are especially important for delivery drivers who visit multiple locations throughout the day. After every delivery is made, drivers should remove their gloves, dispose of them safely, and wash their hands thoroughly before putting on a new pair of gloves. If hand washing facilities are not available, hand sanitiser may be used but must be 70% alcohol or greater to be effective against the coronavirus.
Wearing disposable gloves can give food workers a false sense of security, and may reduce the amount of caution used. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can live on objects and surfaces for up to 72 hours — and gloves are no exception.
Face shields are simple, transparent screens usually made of plastic that cover the face and protect the wearer from infectious droplets released when an infected person speaks, breathes, coughs or sneezes. Often used by healthcare workers when performing high-risk tasks such as intubating patients, an increasing number of food workers are being observed wearing this PPE.
Food workers should wear face shields in conjunction with face masks. First, put on the face mask, then the face shield. The coronavirus can be transmitted via the mouth, nose or eyes — face shields provide an extra level of protection and protect the eyes of the wearer, whereas other forms of PPE don’t.
Face shields are less readily available than face masks or disposable gloves. However, homemade face shields are reasonably effective and instructions can be found online on how to make these. Unlike most other forms of PPE, many types of face shields can be sterilised and re-worn.
Plastic disposable aprons can be worn by food workers to help prevent the coronavirus from contaminating their clothes and getting spread outside of the work environment.
A fresh apron should be used every shift, and replaced whenever potential contamination by the coronavirus or other food safety hazards could have occurred.
Food workers must wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before putting on a disposable apron, or after taking it off.
There is currently a shortage of many types of PPE around the world, so prior to opening it’s important to spend time sourcing and procuring the PPE that you need to operate your business safely and successfully.
Keep Deliveries and Pick-up Safe
If continuing with deliveries and pick-up options after reopening, every effort must be made to keep these operations safe.
Actions to take include:
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gloves and hand sanitiser
- Sanitise delivery bags and boxes after each delivery
- Maintain zero contact delivery protocols
For pick-up, ensure that customers picking up food are kept away from any dine-in customers or offer curbside pick-up options instead.
Follow Food Safety Protocols
All Australian states and territories have laws and regulations about food safety protocols that must be followed. These laws are in place to protect consumers from food-borne illness. Generally, they cover three broad areas:
- Cleaning and sanitation
- Personal hygiene of food handlers
- Time and temperature control
By following these regulations, harmful food-borne pathogens (e.g. Norovirus, Salmonella, Listeria) are destroyed or do not reach high enough levels to pose harm to human health.
Fortunately, the same principles apply when destroying SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In fact, in many cases it’s easier to kill SARS-CoV-2 as it doesn’t live on surfaces for as long as some other pathogens, nor does it have a protective shell or coating like some bacteria that need to be destroyed in a food environment.
However, extra considerations do need to be made in regard to COVID-19 as the danger is not limited to pathogens being present on food and food contact surfaces. We know the virus can live on surfaces for hours — or even days — and so an additional focus needs to be placed on surfaces that food doesn’t normally come into contact with.
Nominated Food Safety Supervisors should take time before reopening to review the business’ Food Safety Program and update policies and procedures to reflect changes that have come about due to the coronavirus pandemic.