Industry focus – COVID-secure considerations for hospitality and leisure outlets

Anyone operating in the hospitality and leisure industry is currently wrestling with historic uncertainty, thanks to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Forced to close since the UK lockdown was imposed in the last week of March, garden centres, leisure centres, restaurants, farm shops, hotels and other types of holiday accommodation have been hit hard at what would traditionally be one of their busiest times of the year.

The Government has been walking a tightrope between preserving public health and kickstarting a crucial part of the UK economy, which is worth an estimated 3.5 million jobs. Among the measures being considered to enable hospitality and leisure outlets to re-open as soon as possible, include a review of planning guidelines to enable them to make more use of outdoor spaces, and a reconsideration of the two-metre social distancing rule after many business owners suggested they would not be able to fit a sufficient number of customers into their premises if this guideline remains in place.

As these debates rage on, the Government have now given clear permission allowing restaurants, pubs and the like to potentially re-open on 4 July and, while this is good news on the face of it, many face concern over getting back in business in a way that is both safe and cost-effective, following several months without income.

The good news is that there are multiple ways to overcome this problem if you seek the right advice and think outside the box. We work with many clients in the HORECA (Hotels Restaurants and Catering) space, and have decided to offer the benefit of that experience to others in this field, by putting together this blog with some hints and tips to help outlets have more confidence in their options for re-opening.

Because we’re a member of a number of specialist alliances and keep a watchful eye out for best practice ideas and industry guidance, we’re ideally placed to help you find creative solutions to this major conundrum.

Eating the elephant

The first thing to say is that you don’t have to tackle everything all at once. Unfortunately, you will face some extra cost, for things like personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional hand and environmental cleaning and disinfecting solutions. However, we can help you keep this to a minimum by guiding you on how to prioritise what you tackle first and make the most of the options you have at your disposal. We can help you form a workable plan that you can build a robust strategy upon and as the Government’s key phrase ‘following a road map’ to help bring your business back to life.

For example, if you run a restaurant, start with a manageable headcount, building general confidence for both customers and staff, until you get some revenue coming back in, and then you’ll have the cash you need to invest in buying the necessary equipment to scale things up further, such as strategically-placed screens to protect your front of house staff, and in between customer tables to shield them.

You might also want to think about making more use of any outdoor space you have, as the coronavirus risk reduces significantly once you take people out into the open air. However, if you’re in a city centre with a relatively cramped first floor dining space and no outside area, you might consider seating people around the edges of the room. All seating, wherever possible, should be wall or window facing, prioritising safety over social interaction and aesthetics, in order to ensure greater safety and  customer confidence. Try, wherever possible, to keep all the windows open, or utilise air conditioning that draws fresh air from outside into your establishment, if you have it?). However you do it, your priority should be keeping plenty of clean, fresh air coming in.

Five common questions answered

We’ve been supporting and guiding our hospitality and leisure clients as they prepare to re-open in the ‘new normal’, and thought we’d compile and share some of the more common themes that might help others facing similar challenges, in the questions and answers below:

    1)  How do I ensure re-opening is profitable for my business?

Things to consider here include maximising the number of covers in your seating areas, as safely as possible, by adding in dividing screens. Also, consider how you might maximise your outdoor seating capabilities, to further extend your capacity. Be mindful to keep walkways and rooms as spacious and clear as possible, to ensure maximum social distancing. This will also help the environment feel less ‘closed in’ despite the addition of screens.

    2)  How do I promote to my customers that we are COVID-secure, and how do I keep my staff safe?

Providing your staff with the correct PPE, for example reusable face masks or visors, keeps them safe but also promotes good practice within your establishment. Offering complimentary items to your customers, including disposable face masks and hand sanitiser, will stand you in good stead for keeping your customer base and your team safe and also help to enhance the reputation of your business at this challenging time. Clear signage throughout your premises is also a very good way of really shouting about the fact you are taking COVID-19 seriously and imposing every possible precaution to protect your staff and customers.

Promote to your customers, as a whole, strategically-mounted certificates confirming the regulated cleaning products you are using. Consider additional wall-mounted hand sanitiser units at entrances and exits, encouraging high levels of hand hygiene.  If toilet facilities are remote from the main areas, also consider providing mobile handwashing units and a supply of hand towels at entrances and exits.

We also recommend using a digital ‘no touch’ thermometer to check customers as well as staff immediately upon arrival to safeguard everyone’s wellbeing.

And keep a register of all visitors’ names, not just the person who booked the table, in the event of track and trace being needed, to help support efforts to locate customers and keep everyone safe if necessary. Please do remember to adhere to General Data Protection Regulation in gaining explicit consents from your customers for gathering and using their information.

    3)  How can I keep customer facilities, such as toilets, safe?

Consider introducing a ‘one in, one out’ policy for toilets to prevent people from coming into too close contact with each other, cleaning if possible after each use, as a new confidence-giving process. Also, if possible, close off every other cubicle to assist with this spacing, alternating between closed and open to assist easy ‘during service’ cleaning? Hand dryers are a source of concern for many within the medical profession as well as industry due to their ability to spread germs, and potentially the coronavirus, from one person to another. Our strong advice would be to turn all electric hand dryers off and revert to paper hand towels, dispensing them in a controlled way via wall mounted unit  – ‘use it, bin it’ should be your mantra.

Coronavirus can be spread in bodily fluids as well as by touch so it is essential to  keep toilet areas hygienically spotless. Promote to your customers and team members the conformity of the products you are using to certified standards. Show on a cleaning rota the additional levels of cleanliness being maintained and the frequency of cleaning your team are undertaking. Your schedule should include the cleaning down of toilet facilities and all regular touch points like switches, handles and taps using a regulated virucidal disinfectant, disposable cloths or paper wiping product, again according to the ‘use it, bin it’ approach.

    4)  How long will I need to continue taking extra precautions?

This isn’t something that will suddenly not be required. Good hygiene practices are always a good idea and given the heightened state of alert caused by coronavirus,  customer perception of your hygiene standards will remain just as critical long after the pandemic has subsided. Added to this, experts are predicting that social distancing and the need for protective items like screens will continue until 2021 at the earliest, so it’s important to adapt your business to the new order of things in a way that you can maintain for the future.  Promote signage and ‘certification of products in use’ giving reassurance to existing and new customers.

    5)  Does air conditioning heighten the risk from COVID-19?

This is a common misconception, but actually research has shown that systems which pull in fresh air from outside and continually expel particles from indoors are beneficial, so it’s worth double-checking what kind of air conditioning you have before you discount it as an option.

Common requirements for hospitality businesses

There are certain COVID-secure actions and items of equipment that are common across most hospitality and leisure businesses, and we’ve captured some of them here as an at-a-glance list:

Actions and process changes

  • Install smaller back-of-house teams to enable your employees to maintain social distancing themselves
  • Introduce contactless payments and ordering
  • Instigate one-way traffic
  • No bar ordering, instead use an APP or table service only
  • When delivering to tables, place drinks/food orders on the table edge, avoiding over-handling items and moving in between customers. Keep your distance at all times
  • Consider and promote customer ‘pre bookings’ only, giving confidence in your controls.
  • Extra PPE and hygiene awareness training for all employees
  • Regularly (between customers), your front-of-house team should visibly go through the process of wiping down tables, chairs, high chairs and other high-contact areas with virucidal cleaning agents, allowing a five-minute contact time to ensure any risk is mitigated as far as you possible. Disposable table cloths may help with this process but naturally incur cost
  • Enhanced cleaning with appropriate chemicals throughout your premises
  • Introduce regular staff screening for COVID-19.

Equipment

  • Single-use menus
  • Condiment sachets to replace multi-use bottles and jars
  • Masks, gloves, aprons and other appropriate PPE
  • Screens between tables, and around tills and ordering/queuing areas
  • Single-use cups and other serving items
  • Provide cutlery service items per customer, in pre-sanitised and sealed units to avoid cross-contamination
  • Sanitiser /hand wash stations throughout your premises
  • Digital thermometer
  • Unplug/remove hand dryers, install hand towel dispensers
  • Signage to reinforce the importance of hand-washing and social distancing.
  • A robust and documented cleaning plan and management record keeping folder

Turning a problem into an opportunity

We’ve been really encouraged by the way our hospitality clients have tackled this issue in recent weeks, with many finding creative ways to pivot their businesses – such as offering takeaways – in order to keep some cash coming in. Based on this, we strongly believe that many will emerge stronger than before, having identified new arms to what they offer, building great customer support, loyalty and confidence in their abilities, which they can continue alongside their core activities, well into the future.

The important thing is not to be fazed by what’s currently going on, or to think that you have to do it all at once. Everything has a logical process, it really is all down to good planning and one  step at a time is the key. Also, just because the Government might announce that you’re allowed to re-open on a certain date doesn’t mean you have to. It’s important to do so when the time is right for you, and to make sure that when you do so, you do it right. Opening too early could actually do more harm than good and have a negative impact on how your business is perceived by customers. Understandably, members of the public are looking for firms to meet certain standards amidst the current COVID risk level, and any that don’t provide that reassurance are likely to suffer a dip in reputation as a result.

Our other key piece of advice is ‘don’t be side-tracked by popular demand’. For example, wearing gloves or face coverings/masks just because your customers expect it isn’t enough, staff awareness and engagement is critical to the overall hygiene message, you are supporting.

With best practise in mind, there are examples on a national basis, of businesses providing gloves for their takeaway and delivery services however, without clear and consistent guidelines to change their gloves before touching and delivering the next delivery, to a new location – thereby continuing to potentially spread the virus from one person to another despite the fact their compliant appearance.

We’ve even heard of cases of workers sharing face masks between them, which makes them completely and utterly pointless or, worse still, dangerous. So, don’t be pushed and pulled by public opinion. Instead, identify the right actions for your business and make sure you do them right, and this will work much better for you in the long term.

So, take a deep breath, take expert advice, decide what’s going to work best for you and your business and start now rather than leaving it until the last minute, when it is likely to become a real source of stress. If you’re not sure where to start and need some guidance from a family firm that knows, from experience, what works and what doesn’t, don’t hesitate to get in touch via enquiries@elliotthygiene.com or (01482) 327580.

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