Chefs and Restaurants

As Restaurants Reopen, Gloves and Masks are the New Key Ingredients

When Datz Restaurant Group, based in Tampa, Fla., reopened five of its six restaurants over Mother’s Day weekend, employees pitched tents in parking lots to expand outdoor seating, and in compliance with state regulations, limited their dining room capacity to 25 percent. Working with Datz’ longtime consultant Florida Food Safety Systems, they established and trained their staff on standard operating procedures above and beyond those issued by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“It was incredibly nerve-wracking,” says Lisa Gadbout, director of operations for Datz. “We’re doing the best we can every day to keep our team and diners safe.”

Workers now prop open doors to increase airflow and hand each guest a sanitizing napkin. Datz switched to single-use menus and assigned two employees per shift to do nothing but to walk around and sanitize surfaces. The group also provided workers with disposable masks and installed numerous hand sanitizing stations.

 

The precautions are necessary, but their costs add up quickly. In one week, at a single Datz location with 97 employees, they went through 500 masks ($618), seven half-gallon tubs of hand sanitizer (at $24 a pop), and $225 worth of gloves.

“We have to be humble toward a contagion with no vaccine or treatment. There’s so many variables within a restaurant, it only behooves owners to be overly cautious,” says Shreela Sharma, PhD, RD, professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “You need just one case to shut all your services down. One infected person increases the likelihood of transmitting the virus to everyone else. It makes fiscal sense to be overly cautious so you can continue serving.”

To help restaurants better plan for the months ahead, Plate spoke to the team at Datz—along with an occupational health expert and epidemiologist, restaurant owners, and workers—about PPE protocols and anticipated safety-related expenses.

Industry Standards for Safety, PPE, and Mask Wearing

As more states resume dine-in service, restaurant associations, public health departments, and national nonprofits are all releasing guidelines to keep workers and diners safe. The most comprehensive set of guidelines to date comes from The James Beard Foundation in partnership with The Aspen Institute Food & Society Program, World Central Kitchen, and Off Their Plate. World Central Kitchen has also issued helpful guidelines on how to wear masks, along with an illustrated cheat sheet for worker safety.

These resources are a great starting point, especially if your state has issued weak or confusing recommendations, or is only relying on non-restaurant-specific recommendations from the CDC.

Mask Options

Although some states don’t require mask wearing in restaurants, responsible owners must provide face coverings to employees. Because N95 masks are still in short supply, they should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders. The remaining masks on the market are most effective in protecting people around the mask wearer. “It’s not about you,” says Amy Daniell, Senior Occupational Safety and Health Consultant at Richmond, Va.-based Circle Safety. “You have to assume you have the virus, even if you don’t.”

Disposable surgical masks are widely available through restaurant suppliers. A restaurant manager in Atlanta reported paying anywhere from $34 to $80 for a 50-pack; Gadbout paid $62. In general, most workers find that they only need one mask per shift; masks only need to be replaced if they become wet or soiled, which renders them less effective.

Many owners are allowing workers to supply their own reusable cloth masks (ideally with a HEPA filter), or they’re having custom masks made for their teams. Cloth masks range from $10 to $25 and must be washed after every shift. In the long run, it could be more affordable to buy employees a few quality reusable masks.

The effectiveness of disposable vs. cloth is nearly the same, and many restaurants are choosing reusable masks for front of house staff and disposables for back of house. The latter are more breathable and comfortable in hot environments, and the former more attractive and welcoming to guests.

Other Mask Considerations and Costs

Restaurants should consider providing mask storage to guests and employees. An envelope or small paper bag would be appropriate for guests, and labeled paper bags, hung from hooks could work for employees. “The risks of having the outside of a mask being contaminated are real,” says Daniell. “Workers will need to take off their masks. Wearing them all day is not comfortable, and owners have to understand that employees will need more breaks than usual.”

Employers should also encourage workers to wear masks to and from work if they walk, ride a bike, or rely on public transportation. The workers should then safely switch to a company-issued mask.

Daniell would also love to see restaurants require guests to wear masks when they visit the restroom, and supply masks to patrons who don’t bring their own. “Diners walk by other tables, and you don’t know if they’re coughing and leaving aerosols in a confined space,” she says.

Restaurants should also purchase several lidded, no-touch trash bins for mask and glove disposal.

To Glove or Not

Glove wearing practices vary widely at restaurants right now. Datz employees are required to wear gloves at all times and change them frequently. In one Florida chain, servers replace gloves every time they serve a new table.

Recently published guidelines say that universal glove wearing in the back of the house is not necessary to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Frequent, task-based handwashing for 20 seconds is far more effective, according to Daniell. In kitchens, glove wearing should be confined to cleaning and food handling procedures established by the Food and Drug Administration in pre-Covid-19 times.

Severs and front of house workers are another story. Gloves are an important piece of protection for workers who are touching plates, glasses, and silverware that have been contaminated with bodily fluids. Even as guests talk and laugh, they spray droplets into the air and onto surfaces. Dr. Sharma says that servers need access to plenty of gloves so they can change them frequently. A glove change between each table is not extreme, since dirty gloves can transfer viral particles from one group to the next. “As with any of these protective strategies, it’s in how they’re implemented,” she says.

Extra PPE for Dishwashers

Dishwashers, although removed from guest interaction, may be exposed to airborne viral particles as they rinse and spray plates and glassware. Though the JBF guidelines don’t call out dishwasher safety, those from the California Department of Public Health do:

“Dishwashers should use equipment to protect the eyes, nose, and mouth from contaminant splash using a combination of face coverings, protective glasses, and/or face shields. Dishwashers must be provided impermeable aprons and change frequently. Reusable protective equipment such as shields and glasses should be properly disinfected between uses.”

Daniell says the risk is low but real, and, in addition to PPE, kitchens may want to add a step to washing procedures by dunking dishes in soapy water or sanitizer before spraying them off.

Additional Costs to Consider

Restaurants should budget for vastly more soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning products. Linen costs will rise as aprons, caps, and uniforms need to be washed daily. The James Beard guidelines recommend installing touchless hand sanitizing stations and providing sanitizing wipes for workers to wipe down personal items and frequently touched objects and surfaces.

The team at Datz found that guests were reluctant to sign checks on hand-held tablets, so they bought a box of stylus pens. Servers now sanitize the pens and tablet before presenting guests the final check.

Judy Ni, owner of Philadelphia's Baology is planning for extra labor to sanitize and reinforce social distancing, added waste costs for larger and more frequent trash pickups, and the new expense of tracking staff temperatures (touchless thermometers are $50 to $150 each). And that’s not to mention the costs of making architectural, furniture, and HVAC adjustments.

More than any one piece of protection—or its price tag—keeping workers and guests safe is more about the totality of the precautions you take. Comprehensive safety protocols and gear benefit workers in one more important way. “When I think about all these guidelines designed to protect physical health, they’re also about mental health,” says Dr. Sharma. “There’s so much mental duress. Workers already feel vulnerable in these front line jobs. What are the ways we can minimize the mental and emotional stress they’re going through by ensuring the highest level of integrity and compliance in regards to practices.”

Caroline Hatchett is a New York City-based food and drinks writer, who also happens to host the world’s only casserole lifestyle podcast.