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COVID and restaurants reopen

Expert Q&A: MPH's Justine Kaplan on restaurants, retail stores and COVID-19

The College of Applied Health Sciences has experts in many areas that have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Periodically we will ask these experts about how their areas of expertise have been impacted and what we can expect in a post-COVID-19 world. Today, we ask Justine Kaplan, Interim Director, MPH & MSHA Programs and Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, about the best practices for restaurants and retail stores to reopen.

Q: Is it too soon for restaurants and retail stores to be opening now?

A: This is a tough one. From a public health perspective, we would of course prefer to have folks shelter in place in their homes as much as possible until we have a vaccine (or other strong prophylactic (preventive medication) and/or treatment) in place.  However, we understand there are other needs that have to be balanced with this, including economic, social, mental health, and others.

Q: What are some of the considerations employers should take when it comes to health and safety concerns? 

A: Employers should do everything in their power to follow the guidelines issued by the public health authorities (their local health department, Illinois Department of Public Health, Centers for Disease Control).  Protecting employees and customers is the only way businesses will be able to stay open longer-term. Taking precautions to make employees and customers safe is not just the ethically right thing to do, but also the right business move.  You want your employees to feel safe and taken care of if they are going to be able to do a good job at work. Your customers are also going to have hesitation about coming back, and the more precautions you take the more likely they are to return and do so safely.
Q: What guidance would you give a restaurant as it prepares to reopen to serve people on site?

A: Follow the guidelines from your local health department, IDPH, and CDC.  Take them seriously as though your business depends on following them… because it does. 
Q: What safety measures should small businesses with close contact such as barber shops, tattoo parlors and massage places take to keep employees and customers safe?

A: Businesses that provide close-contact services have some of the toughest jobs here. Providing a haircut, massage, nail service, or other close-contact service is considered a higher-risk role due to the close proximity, often for a long period of time. Follow the guidelines from your local health department, IDPH, and CDC. This means masks on—and paying attention to the masks being on correctly, covering mouth and nose. This means getting used to not touching the masks throughout the day, as touching them creates contamination of your hands.  Very frequent hand washing needs to be a new normal at these businesses. So does cleaning before and after each customer. Customers should be limited—waiting in their car or outside, not in a busy waiting room. It may mean spacing out service providers in your shop so that you are serving fewer customers at a time to allow social distancing. Depending on the shop, this may need to be having staff stagger shifts so that the staff are further spaced out and clients too.  In short, there is a tremendous amount about the work that may look very, very different in the COVID-era of providing these services.
Q: What best practices have you seen in currently opened stores that you think are done well?

A: Stores that have worked with their local health departments to customize their specific set-up to meet COVID-19 requirements have the best likelihood of success here. Our local health department (Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, C-UPHD) is doing an excellent job of working with businesses in this way. In addition to using masks and frequent hand-washing, setting up the store differently is vital. This can be a wide range of tools depending on the shop—adding cleaning products for carts and hands in front, wider aisles, signage about which way to flow through a store, signage about how to distance while waiting in line at counters to to check-out, plexiglass windows to separate staff and customers, are all the right steps to be taking.  Key here is making these changes AND communicating them. Communicating the changes and how to follow the new rules to both employees and customers is vital in ensuring their success. Keeping the messaging consistent and clear, with this all being rooted in working together to help the entire community, is key.
Q: Conversely, what have you seen that worries you, whether it’s the employee or the customer?

A: The most frequent thing I see that worries me is improper mask usage. Last time I went to the grocery store, I was pretty alarmed. I think on that trip only about 30 percent of folks in the store had a mask on properly. I see a lot of masks wore only over the mouth with the nose hanging out. Sometimes even masks just hanging around the neck. For folks who are using masks that cover their mouth and nose, the next big problem is frequent touching of the mask. That causes contamination of yours hands, which can then spread germs to any surface you touch. Wearing a mask IS new and weird for many of us. Practicing at home, can help. Having a mask on but not covering your mouth and nose, (or touching it frequently) is a problem, not a help. Be part of the solution—wear the mask correctly!  
Q: How quickly do you think people will feel safe in returning to restaurants, bars, etc?

A: I think this will vary a great deal based on the person, and rightly so. If you are a high-risk individual, or have high-risk members of your family, you should be hesitant about going out to restaurants. In fact, really you shouldn’t go. You are far safer to stay home, do take out or delivery if you want a meal from a restaurant. That allows you to support your local restaurant and give them business, while limiting your exposure and risk. If you are a low-risk individual with low-risk folks in your home, this might be something you are more willing to try. That said, take-out or delivery is still safer for you too. If you do choose to eat at a restaurant, check it out before you walk inside. Be sure you can easily social distance, ideally in outdoor seating.  Be sure the restaurant is showing how they have taken the right precautions, be sure masks are on, that patrons are required to be in masks except when eating, that you see very frequent cleaning, and that you see hand-washing. From my personal perspective, my family and I will support restaurants via takeout or delivery, but we will not be eating out onsite at a restaurant any time soon.

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