Local Restaurants Bracing For Decreased Business Due To Coronavirus

Mar 12, 2020

Aside from the primary election, the news is filled with stories about COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus. From airlines who have grounded planes, conference cancellations (including SXSW), to workers being encouraged to work remotely, plus barren grocery store shelves — not of food, but of hand sanitizer, paper towels and rubbing alcohol — worldwide, we are re-evaluating how we live, work and play.

How are restaurants handling this change? The restaurant industry is historically one where those who were sick came in anyway, for fear of letting down their colleagues – or even losing their job. But the culture of restaurants is changing. ServSafe, the testing program offered by the National Restaurant Association, which certifies restaurant workers in food safety, recently released a training sheet about coronavirus. It focuses on handwashing, disinfection and staying home when sick.

We chatted with several local restaurant owners about how they are handling both cleanliness and staffing issues, and spent some time over the weekend finding out first-hand how restaurants are coping.

The most notable restaurant, both locally and nationally, to address coronavirus? Starbucks. Commenters on social media outlets noted that they could not use their own coffee cups at Starbucks due to the potential threat of the virus. We visited two Starbucks locations: Columbia Parkway and Kroger On the Rhine, and both have signs warning patrons they are unable to handle customer-provided cups. At Kroger On the Rhine, there is an additional sign saying they have temporarily stopped offering samples to help prevent transmission. 

For most restaurants, not much changes: they treat this potential pandemic like they would seasonal influenza. Jose Salazar, who owns three restaurants locally – Mita's, Salazar and Goose & Elder – said that they are operating as usual and aren't making any changes currently. "We always stress handwashing, but of course now more than ever," Salazar says. However, he notes that he's seen a steep drop in reservations, and anticipates many cancellations over the weekend.  "This is going to have a huge economic impact on the industry," he says.

Thunderdome, which runs 12 restaurants locally and has 39 locations nationwide, credits its leaders' backgrounds in hotel management for its already high corporate standards. A spokesperson from Thunderdome says that Thunderdome management is making sure every soap dispenser is filled, and anyone who is sick does not come to work. "We make sure their shifts are covered for three days," says Altman. "Most restaurants are already short staffed because of (seasonal influenza). We ask the public to have patience."

Many restaurants seem to be as busy as ever, while others have seen a slowdown, though that is typical in the early months of the year. I asked some questions on Facebook about COVID-19 and the precautions both diners and restaurants were taking. Many said they weren't worried and that they were still dining out. Tony Ferrari, of Mom n' Em and Fausto, said "Like everything else, keep clean, eat healthy and exercise. You can't live in a bubble." Others noted that they may skip big events, such as the now-canceled Cincinnati Wine Festival and others, who note that they or those they know are immunosuppressed, are trying to stay safe.

The best thing you can do to avoid the virus, whether you’re in the service industry or not, is follow Servsafe's guidelines, which are based on the CDC's guidelines:

  • Wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds; if soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue, not into your hands
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Stay home if you are sick
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes and mouth   

And if you’re well? Go visit your local restaurants.