Arguably, no industry has been harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic than has restaurants across the country. Some restaurants were able to remain partially operational by maintaining pickup and delivery services. Some were not. There will be some establishments that will never see their doors open again. A majority of eateries will at least be able to attempt to return to “full” operations (as defined by what fairly can be called the “new normal”) at some juncture. Restaurants need to be contemplating their health and legal obligations when the day comes that they can reopen dining rooms and related operations for their patrons. 

California Legal Standard for Protecting Workers, Vendors, and Patrons From COVID-19

Restaurants face an extensive array of legal directives associated with health and safety. This article is not designed to address all of these issues; rather, it’s been prepared to provide some basic insights associated with the legal duty of restaurants to their workers and patrons when it comes to protecting against COVID-19 infection.

Generally speaking, California eateries have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to provide reasonable protection against employees, patrons, vendors, and others becoming infected with COVID-19 when on their premises. There will be a number of ways in which this duty of reasonableness is established. These include state statutes and other mandates, local ordinances, and what will become more generalized practices in the restaurant industry designed to protect against COVID-19 contamination and infection.

Create a COVID-19 Ombudsman 

One way in which “things” associated with COVID-19 protections at a restaurant can go off course is if there is confusion in regard to who bears ultimate responsibility at an establishment for overseeing coronavirus contamination prevention and remediation. A restaurant is well-served designating one individual to be charged with managing all COVID-19 issues, including routine sanitization, in-house deep cleaning, and engaging and coordinating the professional assistance of a reputable coronavirus cleaning and disinfection company. 

Making such a designation, creating a sort of COVID-19 ombudsman, provides a resource for workers to reach out to if a question or concern arises regarding coronavirus in the workplace. It provides a focal point for coordinating all matters associated with preventing and remediation coronavirus contamination in an eatery. Having a person responsible for overseeing a restaurant’s coronavirus response enhances overall health safety and is likely to be considered a tactic that contributes to reasonably protecting against COVID-19 contamination from a legal standpoint. 

Suiting Up to Serve

When eateries are permitted to reopen dining areas, serving staff will need to properly suit up for the task. This includes wearing appropriate masks and gloves. Donning gloves is likely to be subject to debate when it comes to service staff at eateries. The reality is that gloves and bare hands are equally capable of carting and shedding COVID-19. The real issue is ensuring that service staff exercise proper COVID-19 hygiene (regular, thorough hand washing or glove changes).

All eatery staff will need to be closely monitored for COVID-19 infection. The problem is that at this time and likely into the foreseeable future, there will be some limitations on this monitoring. There will be serving staff members infected with COVID-19 that demonstrate no detectable symptoms. The most likely way in which eatery staff will be tested for possible COVID-19 infection is by regular temperature taking.

Ultimately, restaurants will have access to onsite, rapid testing equipment. This type of testing equipment can reveal whether a staff member is infected with COVID-19.

Reconfiguring Dining Areas and Seating Practices

Major changes will need to take place in the way most restaurants have configured their dining areas. Other associated changes will need to be made in regard to seating practices, specifically the number of patrons in the dining area at the same time.

There are certain to be state mandates dictating how eateries utilize dining areas. These likely will include everything from space between tables as well as total number of patrons in a restaurant at one time. With that said, there is a possibility that the state may come down with more “generous” mandates that permit closer seating and more people in an eatery at one time than might be prudent, depending on the prevailing circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As a consequence, some minimum standards should be borne in mind regardless of what the state (or city) does in regard to restaurants opening. In the final analysis, as discussed previously, a restaurant will need to take any and all reasonable steps to protect workers and patrons from COVID-19 infection. 

Yes, state or even local standards will serve as a guide to what is reasonable. However, as we are beginning to see elsewhere in the United States, some businesses are balking at reopening when more permissive states have allowed for this to happen. In addition, a notable number of restaurants can be seen taking more aggressive positions in regard to regulating dining room use despite what a state or local government will dictate. 

We have all heard the mantra about keeping six feet away from other individuals when out in public. In a restaurant dining room setting, the preferred if not recommended distance between tables is likely to be more in the neighborhood of 10 feet. 

Disposable menus are also likely to be standard fare in an eatery dining room. The same holds true for table coverings. At a minimum, all table coverings would need to be removed and laundered between seatings, which has not necessarily been a universal practice. Disposable napkins may prove to be a preference, at least until the spread of COVID-19 is better contained. 

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting this may become an issue. If that is the case, it underscores the necessity for not only internal remediation but also professional COVID-19 cleaning and disinfection.

As was discussed, in the end, restaurants will not be held to a standard of perfection but reasonableness. Thus, ultimately a consideration of state and local directives coupled with what conscientious restaurants undertake on their own volition will form the underlying reasonableness standard. This is challenging on some level in that it does necessitate all eateries pay close attention to what is happening in the industry, including information and recommendations promulgated by organizations like the National Restaurant Association

Patron Requirements When Dining In

When it comes to the legal duty of a restaurant to maintain a reasonable level of safety associated with COVID-19, certain requirements will also need to be put in place regarding patrons. For example, discussion is being had about taking the temperature of people interested in dining before they enter a dining area. At this juncture, this is the only broadly available course of testing patrons, albeit one that is not 100 percent useful (for reasons discussed previously).

Continual Cleaning and Disinfection

A clear legal standard associated with restaurants in the COVID-19 era will be ongoing cleaning and disinfection by the restaurant itself. Information on cleaning and sanitization agents identified by the Environmental Protection Agency is provided for your consideration in a moment. 

The reality is that there are limitations on what can be done in the way of cleaning by an eatery’s staff member. This leads to a consideration of the role a professional COVID-19 cleaning company plays in the overall process of satisfying a restaurant’s legal duty associated with COVID-19 and coronavirus contamination.

Regular Comprehensive Professional Coronavirus Cleaning and Disinfection

In addition to continual cleaning and sanitization by a restaurant’s staff, restaurants legal duty to reasonably protect against COVID-19 contamination will necessitate professional intervention on two levels. First, ideally, an eatery will engage the services of a California COVID-19 cleaning company to assist in developing a comprehensive COVID-19 contamination prevention strategy. 

In addition, if COVID-19 contamination is suspected at a restaurant, rapid remediation by a reputable coronavirus cleaning and disinfection company is a reasonable step for an eatery to take. 

EPA Master List of Products With Substantiated Claims for Use Against COVID-19

As discussed a moment ago, the duty of restaurants to maintain pathogen-free dining, preparation, storage, and other spaces as enhanced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This particularly is the case as restaurants move towards a point where dining room services eventually will become a reality in California as restrictions arising out of the need to control the spread of COVID-19 slowly relax.

A restaurant cannot proceed willy-nilly in its selection of disinfectants to be used throughout hours of operation and otherwise in a venue. The best practice when it comes to protecting workers, patrons, vendors, and others is to select a product that is found on the EPA’s master list of products with a substantiated claim for use against COVID-19.

Bear in mind that this list is in a constant state of change. New products are being added almost daily. Moreover, the possibility exists that some products currently included on the list may be taken off because their efficacy or usefulness is called into question. 

A restaurant absolutely cannot use a product once on this list that was removed because evidence suggest it’s not working as claimed. A restaurant should assign a staff member to check the EPA list of products indicated for eradicating COVID-19 at least weekly. Verifying is not a cumbersome process because each product is assigned an EPA number. A search portal exists at the EPA site which allows for a rapid examination to see if a product being used is still indicated for attack COVID-19.

A final note about this list maintained by the EPA. We are in a health crisis. As a result, the list includes products that come with relatively solid claims of effectiveness. The products on this list are not recommended by the EPA. Rather, there is at least some evidence that those agents listed by the EPA have been demonstrated useful in combating COVID-19. 

A restaurant can be said to be acting reasonably by selecting a product from the EPA list for use in its establishment. This particularly is the case when a restaurant combines its own efforts at preventing and eliminating COVID-19 contamination with regular professional servicing provided by a coronavirus cleaning and disinfection company.