Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Restaurants fight panic along with the flu

The last thing restaurants need is a bad (and untrue) rap about being incubators for H1N1. Yet those assertions are out there. Traffic may be down dramatically for the business, but not enough to reassure the nervous sorts who see the lines at a fast-food place as a modern-day malarial swamp.

It’s bunk, of course. The experts have said again and again that the virus causing swine flu can’t be passed through the ingestion of food. That reduces the risk to airborne contact with the virus or touching a contaminated surface, or the same peril a person faces in any public place with a lot of people moving through.

Yes, restaurants collectively serve much of the population on any given day. But, if memory serves me correctly, the average adult stops at a supermarket more than three times per week. The worrywarts aren’t calling for masks and gloves on the checkout line.

Pleasantly, the coverage of restaurants’ reactions to the threat has been overwhelmingly positive. Yesterday, for instance, a spokesperson for the Florida Restaurant & Hospitality Association was given airtime on a Tampa TV station to reassure the public that staffers with symptoms of swine flu are being directed to stay home.

In the same report, the operator of a local independent mentioned that she’s now sanitizing everything from tabletops to salt shakers, and an official of Sweet Tomatoes noted that the serving utensils on the chain’s buffet tables are now changed hourly.

Last month a Texas TV station quoted the same sort of reassurances from a Cici’s franchisee who heads the Texas Restaurant Association. Bob Westbrook stressed that any employee with flu symptoms is sent home. He also noted how kitchen workers are randomly dispatched at five-minute intervals to go wash their hands.

The report added assurances from the local sanitation department that it will check to see if restaurants are wiping down tables between uses and that enough supplies are on-hand to cover the increased handwashing by the staff.

Of course, highlighting the actions of responsible operators makes the irresponsible ones seem all the more loutish. Good deal. Hopefully they'll be stigmatized as the public dangers they are. Sen. Christopher Dodd told a Senate subcommittee yesterday that an employee sick with swine flu could spread it to 10% of his or her co-workers, a statistic he attributed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Connecticut Democrat cited the factoid to bolster his argument that all businesses should be required to provide paid sick leave, something that’s virtually unknown in the restaurant business. It's something the industry will eventually have to adopt. But the trade isn't currently in a condition where it could absorb the cost. So, in the meantime, turn up the peer pressure.

Then again, it’d be difficult for many restaurants to match the efforts of some colleagues. For one thing, some of the steps could be illegal. A restaurant in Canada was reported to the authorities for allegedly turning away the husband of a local woman who was known to have contracted swine flu. The proprietor contended that she was just trying to protect the staff and other patrons.

And then there’s the germophobic effort of Silk and Soya, a new Thai restaurant in Madrid, Spain. To safeguard its guests and employees, the place reportedly takes each staffer’s temperature before a shift starts. News reports indicate that menus are wiped clean after every use, and that servers use cloth napkins to handle plates. Those safeguards are touted as points of distinction for the place--and the focus of its publicity efforts, judging from the coverage it's garnered.

An unrealistic reaction to a manageable risk is apparently not just an American thing.

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