In case of COVID

Slowly, cautiously, our colleagues in the hospitality community reopen their doors one by one. Across the nation, workers in our bars, pubs, cafes, clubs, hotels and restaurants are returning to work. While it does seem like things are returning to normal, unfortunately, the Coronavirus is still at large. In this blog, we pose the question, “what do we do if do if COVID19 hits our business?”

Take this hypothetical situation.

A small city restaurant reopens. One of its kitchen team attends work with a slight cough. They work one shift and attend a briefing with the rest of the kitchen brigade and the front of house team. A few days later, that worker is tested positive to the Coronavirus. The health department then calls everyone that person worked with and tells them to self-isolate for 14 days from the date of the last contact. They have had ‘close contact’ with someone actively infected with the virus. Thankfully all the staff return negative results, but they still have to quarantine for the 14 days. As a result, the restaurant has to cancel bookings, find a home for the stock it has bought and manage the fallout of the 14-day closure and go through the effort of reopening a second time.

How does this play out in the real world? Western Australia has an admirable low number of COVID19 cases. This has not stopped Perth chef and restaurateur Russell Blaikie from Must Wine Bar, from running all the scenarios in case of a ‘close contact’ as a precaution before he reopened his popular bistro on May 29. “I know some larger businesses are running two or more separate crews in case something happens to one,” says Russell. “We are a tightly run small team. We don’t have that opportunity. We have to be super stringent with our health procedures and be prepared for any eventuality.”

Hospitality industry communications expert Holly Formosa from CommsClass says, “don’t think it won’t happen to you,” she says. “An infected member of the public, whether a customer, staff member or supplier, only need enter your venue. And if you are reopening to the public, this is entirely possible.”  She says that like Russell Blaikie, owners and managers need to be prepared to develop a playbook form which to work in case the worse does happen.

Holly also recommends preparing by contacting the peak industry body for information and protocols. Both the Australian Hotels Association and Restaurant and Catering Australia have extensive information for Coronavirus impact on the workplace.  Restaurant and Catering Australia has created a protocol alongside SafeWork Australia. They recommend one of the first resources will be your state or territory health department helpline or the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080. They say to follow the instructions of the health department.

This will involve the owner or manager collating the names and numbers of everyone who came in contact with the infected person. The health department will require them to go into strict 14-day quarantine from last contact. They can expect regular contact with the health department along with police visits to make sure they are isolated.

Restaurant and Catering Australia recommend deep cleaning the premise with cleaners wearing PPE. “Close off the affected areas and do not let others use or enter them until they have been cleaned and disinfected. Open outside doors and windows if possible, to increase air flow,” recommends the website. “There is no automatic requirement to close an entire workplace following a suspect or confirmed case of COVID-19,” says Restaurant and Catering Australia.

Once the physical wellbeing of the staff and customers has been dealt with, and the premises cleaned and disinfected, communicating the situation is the next priority.  Holly strongly recommends that there be just one point of contact for the business and that they handle all communications with staff, suppliers and customers. Holly says nip rumours in the bud, particularly with staff, by staying in close contact. “I would suggest a daily update for staff at a minimum,” she says. “Even when nothing is happening, don’t stay quiet, tell them you are waiting for the next steps,” says Holly. “And that you will update with further information when you can.”

Joanna Reymond-Burns is Managing Director of Reymond Communications. Her business looks after the communications for some of the biggest names in the restaurant business. Her advice concurs with Holly’s. “Be the bearer of your own bad news,” she says. “It will happen. You don’t want it to happen in your venue, and you certainly don’t want to be the first for it to occur in, but the likelihood of a case at a venue is high.” She says that customers will be looking for a trusted brand, somewhere they feel comfortable and reassured that the venue is doing its best to deliver a safe place to enjoy hospitality.  This creates a situation where, should your venue have a case of COVID-19, the impact is reduced through trust and knowledge.

Therefore trust is essential. Both Holly and Joanna say that clear, open, transparent and regular communication about an outbreak is essential. “Don’t lie or manipulate the truth,” says Holly. “Don’t focus on how you’re affected,” she adds. “Journalists aren’t interested in your worries about sales or PR, it’s their job to report on things which matter to the public, so stick to how the public has/will be affected.”

Joanna says when you have a good story to tell, such as your reopening, go hard with this. She says to let the world know of your intentions. Use social media and email marketing to talk to your clients, especially with the good news of a reopening, with a media release if necessary.

Back in Perth Russell Blaikie, along with his colleagues in the west, are doing their most to fight the battle of confidence in the sector by pushing hard to have regular free testing for people working in hospitality. “The virus is one thing,” says Russell. “But trust is paramount. If we can prove to the public we are doing our best to have safe places to dine and enjoy themselves, then that is a very important thing.”

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Written by Richard Cornish

3 May 2020

Food writer and author, senior contributor of Bidfood’s appetiser. magazine